Maria Escalera (left), of Stone Mountain, with her one year old son I'zaac Hernandez receives I'zaac's birth certificate from Barbara Ary at the vital records office at Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center in Lawrenceville on Thursday, November 15, 2012.
Gwinnett County’s next Probate Court judge wants to be paid for handling birth and death certificates through his office, a privilege that his predecessor had always waived.
As a result, Christopher Ballar will get a $7,500 boost to his $126,347 salary — money that would otherwise have been deposited into the county’s general fund, Deputy County Administrator Aaron Bovos said.
Ballar said he recently notified the county of his intent to collect on those fees because handling vital records in such a large county is no easy task. Last year, there were 6,672 births and 4,062 deaths in Gwinnett.
“Gwinnett is a huge county, and being the vital records custodian is more than a part-time aspect,” Ballar said.
His decision, however, doesn’t sit well with the woman who challenged Ballar in the election. Marlene Duwell, who has served as chief clerk of the Probate Court since 1997, said it appears as though Ballar is looking for a raise before he even takes office.
“You have somebody who has no judicial experience walking in before he’s done any sort of public service and saying ‘I want this compensation increase which amounts to $30,000 over four years,’ ” Duwell said. “All our other judges who have been sitting long-term have gone without pay increases for years.”
The probate judge is entitled to be compensated $2 for signing each death or birth certificate and $1 for recording and indexing the certificates. In a large suburban county, those tasks could potentially generate a substantial amount of revenue to the probate judge on top of his usual salary.
But since counties pay for storage, copying and staffing support for vital records, state lawmakers in 1997 passed a law that allowed county commissioners to cap fees that a probate judge can retain at $7,500 a year, with the remainder going to the county. Gwinnett County commissioners voted last week to impose the cap beginning Jan. 1, when Ballar’s tenure starts.
The president of the Georgia Council of Probate Court Judges, Johnson County Probate Judge Mary Jo Buxton, said such caps are typical but not mandatory in the counties where probate judges keep vital records.
About two-thirds of Georgia counties have designated their Probate Courts to be custodians of vital records. The rest delegate that responsibility to their county health departments. Since the 1930s, all vital records have also had to be filed with the state.
Today through the state’s Department of Public Health’s online system, you can request a birth certificate from anywhere in Georgia.
In metro Atlanta, the only other Probate Court that handles vital records is in Clayton County, and it also has a $7,500 cap on Judge Pam Ferguson’s compensation.
Retiring Judge Walter J. Clark, who has presided over the Gwinnett County Probate Court for the past 19 years, declined to comment about why he had always waived the extra pay for handling vital records. He also chose not to discuss his successor’s decision to collect it.
According to county records, Clark got a higher salary than Ballar will receive — even with the added compensation. He had been in office so long that he was receiving a differential for his longevity of service as well as cost-of-living adjustments. Clark’s salary is $139,159.
There was no pushback from county leaders about the incoming judge’s decision to start collecting additional personal compensation, Bovos said.
“It’s something that’s allowed under state law,” he said, “so we’re certainly understanding of the position to receive the compensation.”