COVINGTON — The Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday against counties — including Newton — that are looking to collect millions in 911 fees they say are not being charged to customers.
Newton joined a class action lawsuit last spring that was initiated by Gwinnett and Cobb counties against several telecom providers. The lawsuit claimed that several telecommunications companies had failed to collect fees levied by local governments to pay for 911 services.
Newton County Manager Lloyd Kerr told commissioners at their meeting Tuesday night that the Supreme Court had ruled that the 911 fees are actually a tax and that local governments do not have the authority to sue to collect the tax.
It would be up to the General Assembly to determine how much is owed in taxes and how they could be collected, according to the Supreme Court ruling.
The ruling reverses a Georgia Court of Appeals decision. Kerr said attorneys representing the counties are “taking a step back to see what their next steps will be.”
District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Cowan said the issue will likely wind up in the Legislature next year for a resolution.
“It’s up to the state under the Gold Dome to decide if they want to go down that road to allow for collection of that sort of tax,” he said.
Former Gov. Roy Barnes told commissioners during a presentation last March that his law firm represents about 40 cities and counties in Georgia and said Newton County could be owed as much as $1.5 million in uncollected fees. Kerr said Tuesday the total amount of uncollected 911 fees across the state has reached as much as $100 million.
Barnes told commissioners last spring that telecom providers by state law are required to collect approximately $1.50 each month for each line or connection that is capable of calling 911. The providers are allowed to keep 3 percent of the fees to cover their costs, and the balance is supposed to be remitted to cities and counties to support 911 emergency systems.
Barnes said that most residential lines are charged correctly; however, telecom providers often under-count the number of lines for which a company could be charged in order to gain an advantage over competitors. This practice is particularly true when using technology that allows multiple phone lines to use a single telephone number, he said.