Legislature votes to stop Gwinnett County tax commissioner from nearly doubling salary with fees

The Georgia House and Senate passed a bill Wednesday that could quash a proposal by Gwinnett Tax Commissioner Tiffany P. Porter to charge special tax collection fees to cities that would nearly double her salary. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
The Georgia House and Senate passed a bill Wednesday that could quash a proposal by Gwinnett Tax Commissioner Tiffany P. Porter to charge special tax collection fees to cities that would nearly double her salary. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Legislation would also impact Fulton County, but immediate impact is unclear

A bill passed by the Georgia House and Senate on Wednesday could quash a proposal by Gwinnett Tax Commissioner Tiffany P. Porter to charge special tax collection fees to cities that would nearly double her salary.

Senate Bill 201, padded with new language this week by the House Rules Committee, prevents tax commissioners from negotiating contracts with cities to increase their own pay and instead gives responsibility for city-county contract negotiations to county commissions.

The bill specifically targets Fulton and Gwinnett, as it only applies to counties with at least 14 cities fully or partially within their boundaries. But it is unclear if the new law would have any immediate impact in Fulton County, where Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has existing contracts with cities that include the fees.

The move by the Legislature comes amid controversy in Gwinnett, after Porter proposed charging eight cities fees of $2 per parcel, which would boost her current salary of approximately $140,000 to about $250,000 and make her the highest paid elected county official.

Gwinnett’s previous tax commissioner, Richard Steele, did not collect personal fees from the cities.

“Tax commissioners shouldn’t be able to raise taxes simply to increase their own pay,” said state Rep. Chuck Efstration (R-Dacula), who recommended the legislation to the House Rules Committee. “This measure, with bipartisan support, makes clear that tax commissioners are responsible to do their jobs, and the county commissions determine what their pay should be.”

The bill received bipartisan support from Gwinnett and Fulton legislators, passing the Georgia Senate Wednesday night with a vote of 47-0. It passed the Georgia House earlier in the day by a 112-55 margin. Gov. Brian Kemp still has to sign the bill before it becomes law.

Legislators for 15 years have tried to abolish the practice — barred by neighboring states — that allows Georgia tax commissioners to inflate their salaries by 50% or more.

Most prolific among them is Ferdinand, who has grown his compensation nearly 600% — from $70,000 in 1997 to roughly $500,000 today.

A 2019 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Georgia News Lab found that at least 48 other county tax commissioners engage in the practice.

The investigation found that Fulton charges six cities 1% of their tax collections for the county’s administrative overhead but does not calculate exactly how much that service costs. Ferdinand receives an additional $1 per parcel from four cities on top of the 1% charge.

Meanwhile in Gwinnett, Porter wants to charge cities the full $1.80 per parcel that it costs the county to collect their taxes, in addition to the $2 per parcel fee paid to her. In 2020, cities paid an average of $1.56, resulting in a county-taxpayer subsidy of $16.42, she said in a Monday media release.

Porter justified collecting additional fees from cities, questioning the “morality of additional responsibility without additional compensation” from the cities who use her office for property tax collection.

State Rep. Jasmine Clark (D-Lilburn) spoke against Senate Bill 201 before it passed the House. While Clark agrees with the principle, she said the bill unfairly targets Fulton and Gwinnett when tax commissioners in other counties engage in the same practice.

Many of the tax commissioners who collect similar fees are Republican and are in rural counties, according to Clark. She said there may be a partisan interest behind the current bill to punish Democratic tax commissioners.

“I do not like the practice at all. I’ve made that clear to Board of Commissioners, the tax commissioner herself and cities in my district,” Clark said. “However, I also fundamentally do not agree with using legislation to target individuals. This was not a local bill; it was a general bill.”

Urged by Gwinnett County officials and city leaders, Efstration pushed ahead with the legislation near the end of the session. While Efstration wants to strengthen the language during the next session to ban the practice in all counties, he said the Legislature needs to conduct more research to find out where else it takes place.

Porter’s plan received backlash from officials in Gwinnett cities, including Lawrenceville and Snellville. Gwinnett County Commissioners Kirkland Carden and Ben Ku denounced the plan in written statements, and members of the Board of Commission urged Efstration and other state legislators to pass a bill before the May 4 deadline Porter gave the commissioners to place the tax collection contracts on their agenda.

Fulton Commissioner Lee Morris said the first time he spared with Ferdinand over these per-parcel fees was back in the 1990s, when Morris headed the finance committee for the Atlanta City Council.

“I don’t think it’s good public policy,” he said. “It was an anachronism back when Georgia tax commissioners had to go knock on doors to collect taxes.”

In Other News