In Cobb, $425K in passport fees enrich Superior Court clerk

State law allows superior court clerks to keep processing fees as personal compensation
File Photo: Downtown Marietta, including the Cobb County Superior Court, as seen from above. (courtesy of Cobb County)

File Photo: Downtown Marietta, including the Cobb County Superior Court, as seen from above. (courtesy of Cobb County)

Since taking office two years ago, Cobb County Superior Court Clerk Connie Taylor has pocketed over $425,000 in processing fees paid by area residents applying for a U.S. passport, financial documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.

Taylor, an elected Democrat, told the AJC that state law requires her to take the fees in a monthly paycheck. And indeed, dozens of other elected officials across the state have done the same for decades under the controversial law that allows superior court clerks to supplement their income with the fees, which are collected on behalf of the U.S. State Department.

“That is income that goes directly to us, and we have to claim that as income tax,” Taylor said. “That’s the law.”

Taylor, however, has profited to an unusual degree thanks to a surge in passport applications handled by her office in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic — and a lack of restraint compared to her peers in the Atlanta metro area, many of whom share some or all of the revenue with the local government.

Her predecessor, Republican Rebecca Keaton, received $116,731 in passport fee paychecks during her second four-year term, while the remaining $108,259 collected from 2017 to 2020 was sent to the county coffers to spend on public services.

In 2021 and 2022, the $425,802 residents paid for passport processing has all gone to Taylor, who defeated Keaton in the 2020 election. The county government received nothing, according to the documents, which the AJC acquired through an open records request.

The fees come in addition to the $170,000 annual salary Taylor receives for managing the department, which serves as the custodian of county property records and all of the civil and criminal files for Cobb Superior Court cases.

Taylor did not respond to requests for an interview Friday. But in a brief phone call with the AJC earlier this month, she pointed to a state law that says fees collected under federal government regulations “shall be ... as personal compensation to the clerk of the superior court for the performance of such duties.”

ACCG, an association that represents county commissions across the state, has argued for years that clerks and probate judges, some of which also administer passport programs, should not be allowed to personally profit from the application fees.

“It’s on county time. It’s on county equipment. It’s on county overhead. But the fee goes to the clerk, who keeps it as personal compensation,” said Todd Edwards, the deputy legislative director for ACCG. “There’s something fundamentally wrong with that.”

Fees set by federal law

The State Department has long encouraged local governments to handle passport applications, saying it is a benefit for residents, who have a convenient place to go, and local governments, which generate additional revenue.

The fees are set in federal law. The federal government is paid the cost of the passport book itself, while the local agency charges an additional $35 in processing fees for a routine application, and $59.70 for expedited service with overnight shipping.

Before 2017, Cobb County didn’t process passport applications at all. Before he left office at the end of 2012, longtime Superior Court Clerk Jay Stephenson told the AJC: “When I ran for the job it had a salary and I said that is what the citizens expect to be my compensation, so I said we were not going to issue passports. We’ve got plenty to do, and the post office is just down the street.”

Keaton changed that during her second term.

At first, the county received 60% of the revenue, with Keaton taking 40% as pay. But midway through 2019 that ratio changed. Keaton took home half the money that year, then 70% of the $58,598 her office collected in 2020, when the pandemic halted passport processing altogether for two months.

Attempts to contact Keaton were unsuccessful. A number listed for her law practice in Marietta was disconnected, and she did not immediately respond to voicemail and text messages left on her cell phone Friday.

Elsewhere in metro Atlanta, program revenue has a been a boon to public coffers.

DeKalb County has processed 38,283 passports since 2017, generating $295,836 for the county general fund, said Xernia Fortson, an attorney and spokeswoman for the superior court’s office. Gwinnett County has processed 3,447 applications since opening its passport facility in March 2022, generating $61,574 for the county general fund, said Ruth McMillan, the chief deputy clerk.

Both counties waive fees for certain applicants, such as senior citizens and law enforcement, and all of the money collected is transferred to the county government to spend on public services, they told the AJC. The Fulton County Superior Court Clerk’s office has not responded to an AJC open records request filed Monday.

The Cobb Superior Court Clerk’s website does not advertise any fee waivers. And Taylor makes more money off fees than either county, even though Cobb has historically processed fewer applications than DeKalb.

In 2021, Taylor was paid $223,283 in passport fees, public financial documents show. This year, she had received $202,519 through August on top of her annual salary, even as she asked the Board of Commissioners this year for a budget increase to combat a staffing shortage.

Notably, her office is separate from the Superior Court itself. In a brief statement to the AJC, Christopher Hansard, the Superior Court administrator who works for the judges, said “the Clerk is an independently elected constitutional officer.”

In a 2017 survey, ACCG found that around 30 local agencies across the state spend all of their passport revenue on county services. More than 50 others kept some or all of the money as personal compensation.