By Dave Emanuel
The highest-paid elected official in Georgia’s most populous county is Fulton Tax Commissioner, Arthur Ferdinand. According to a report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ferdinand earned approximately $390,000 in 2016, “a total that included $210,281 in $1 fees for collecting taxes in Johns Creek, Sandy Springs and Atlanta.”
Ferdinand’s gig has the stamp of approval from the Fulton County Commission, which has repeatedly authorized him to personally collect a $1 fee for each city land parcel for which he collects property taxes. The arrangement is bizarre, but what is even more ludicrous is that Ferdinand uses county resources to collect those property taxes. When given authority to collect taxes for the recently incorporated city of South Fulton, his annual paycheck increased by $40,000, with the full blessing of the South Fulton mayor and city council.
Ferdinand is only the most egregious example. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this month, “Scores of Georgia’s elected county tax commissioners are exploiting the power of their office to charge cities thousands of dollars in fees for collecting their taxes.” In DeKalb, the practice helped its tax commissioner boost his pay to nearly $286,000.
For some cities, the $1 per parcel fee is a bargain: It would cost more than that to fund a city-administered tax collection department. But that does not justify the expense flowing directly into the pockets of a person already paid by the county to collect taxes. Nor is it a common practice in most other metro Atlanta counties.
In neighboring Gwinnett and Walton counties, for example, cities pay their county tax commissioner to collect property taxes. Those counties charge the cities a fifth of what Fulton County charges, and the fees rightfully go into county coffers, not to a personal bank account.
At the time Fulton’s commission approved the arrangement with the city of South Fulton, Fulton County Commissioner Lee Morris declared, “My constituents find this morally repugnant, and every time there’s a news article about that, they’re outraged.”
This raises several questions. Why approve something that is “morally repugnant”? Why allow the county tax commissioner to line his pockets using county resources? The most troublesome issue is why the Georgia General Assembly continues to allow individuals to profit at the expense of taxpayers.
In 2017, legislators discontinued a 50-cent fee that went in the tax commissioner’s pocket every time he sold a tax lien. According to news reports, between 2011 and 2015, Ferdinand collected over $200,000 from fees from the sales of tax liens. The Legislature did not, however, address the city property tax collection fees, which put another $200,000-plus per year in Ferdinand’s pocket.
In essence, the “scores” of county commissions that allow such a practice are sanctioning theft of taxpayer money. It may not be theft from a criminal perspective, because it’s allowed under Georgia law. Still, funds collected on county time should be allocated to county expenses. Of which are being subtracted from county revenue and becoming a personal gain for the tax commissioner.
The legislation that makes this “morally repugnant” practice legal is Section 48-5-359.1 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, which states,
“Any contract authorized by this subsection between the county governing authority and a municipality shall specify an amount to be paid by the municipality to the county which amount will substantially approximate the cost to the county of providing the service to the municipality. Notwithstanding the provisions of any other law, the tax commissioner is authorized to accept, receive, and retain compensation from the county for such additional duties and responsibilities in addition to that compensation provided by law to be paid to the tax commissioner by the county.”
It is easy to understand why residents would find such an arrangement morally repugnant. What is incomprehensible is why the state Legislature and many counties continue to sanction it.
This commentary by Dave Emanuel, Mayor Pro Tem of Snellville, was written for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent, nonprofit think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (June 14, 2019). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.