A federal judge Friday dismissed most of three of the four claims Sapelo Island residents and other interested parties made against McIntosh County alleging racial and disability discrimination in regard to public services, property taxes and their right to live on the island.
In the plaintiffs’ second amended complaint, they state, “McIntosh County, Sapelo Island’s local government, provides essentially no services on the island. The island has no school, no firehouse, no medical services and no police. The county does not adequately maintain the roads and does not contribute to any water or sewer system. Nonetheless, the county charges the Sapelo’s Gullah-Geechee landowners significant property taxes.
“From 2011 to 2012, the county raised property taxes on the island by as much as 1,000 percent for some parcels. The 2012 appraisals were based on an analysis that was flawed on numerous levels and led to taxes that the Gullah-Geechee residents could not afford.”
The complaint alleges, among other things, that the county board of commissioners applied for and received federal community development block grants through the state Department of Community Affairs, yet hasn’t spent any of that money on Sapelo Island for more than 20 years.
The court already ruled the plaintiffs can’t sue McIntosh County itself, and the county argues that the same rule applies to suing the county through its board of commissioners. McIntosh County also states that any claim based on taxation can’t advance because of the Tax Injunction Act. The TIA bars federal courts from getting involved in the collection of state or local taxes when that effort can be as easily accomplished through state courts.
The first three claims deal with allegations of unequal and discriminatory services and violations of property rights under federal law and the 14th Amendment. The fourth claim alleges a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, regarding federal money sent to state and county agencies through various grants and other appropriations.
According to the complaint, the defendants failed “to ensure that federal and state funding is allocated without regard for plaintiffs’ race so as to ensure that plaintiffs are not excluded from participation in, denied the benefits of, or subjected to discrimination under programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”
The county isn’t named as a defendant in the fifth claim, regarding violations of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
U.S. District Judge Stan Baker agreed with McIntosh County’s contention that the county, through its board of commissioners, can’t be sued for claims “to the extent (plaintiffs) assert claims premised upon tax appraisals.” However, Baker found that the plaintiffs can indeed sue the McIntosh County Board of Commissioners for the alleged Civil Rights Act violations.
All allegations made for the first three claims that aren’t premised on tax appraisals are allowed to continue, though.
As to the viability of suing the board, Baker stated multiple federal appellate courts held you can’t hold an entire government responsible for the actions of one of its subdivisions regarding allocation of federal funds, but the board in this matter received the funds and then allegedly allocated them in a discriminatory fashion. In other words, the party alleged to be liable for the act was the party that allegedly committed the act.
“Moreover, an alternative holding dismissing plaintiffs’ claim would allow a county to avoid Title VI liability simply by conducting all its discriminatory practices through its board of commissioners instead of one of its departments,” Baker wrote.
The lawsuit’s nearly five years old and undergone a number of changes — several plaintiffs died so far, with others standing in for the estates of the original plaintiffs. Also, the court’s ruled in the past to remove several defendants from the action, including the McIntosh County manager, the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority, McIntosh County Sheriff Steve Jessup and the McIntosh County Board of Tax Assessors.
Remaining as defendants are the state of Georgia, McIntosh County through its board of commissioners, Gov. Brian Kemp and former Gov. Nathan Deal in their official capacities, the state Department of Community Affairs, the state Department of Natural Resources, DNR Commissioner Mark Williams in his official capacity, and — as an intervenor — the U.S. Department of Justice.