Bill to cap tax commissioner fees passes House

A bipartisan bill that would cap the personal fees that county tax commissioners can earn for collecting cities’ taxes was referred last week to a Georgia Senate committee after unanimously passing the House.

House Bill 1280 would set the terms for negotiating such contracts, and would give all counties, cities and county tax commissioners equal bargaining power in negotiating contracts for collections on behalf of cities.

The bill caps personal fees earned by county tax commissioners for city collections at half their statutory minimum salary.

“There is no actual cap under the law on what (tax) commissioners can receive for these responsibilities on top of their annual salary, which has led to some inefficiencies that ultimately harm the local taxpayer most of all, allowing in some cases for additional compensation far beyond the actual cost of these services,” Rep. Marvin Lim said earlier this month in committee.

Lim is a Democrat representing Norcross, and the bill’s author.

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The bill addresses recent controversies over fees imposed by tax commissioners statewide, especially in Georgia’s two most populous counties, Fulton and Gwinnett. Republicans Chuck Efstration of Dacula and Todd Jones, whose district includes a sliver of north Fulton County, co-sponsored the bill.

A 2019 investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that dozens of county tax commissioners benefitted from the largely unregulated personal fee system. Gov. Brian Kemp last year signed a law that took the power to negotiate municipal tax collection agreements from Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand and Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Tiffany Porter.

Through a spokesperson, Porter said she was pleased the bill would bring her back to the negotiating table.

“I was right all along in this matter and I’m glad the lawmakers have seen fit to correct it,” Porter said in a statement.

Ferdinand makes about $360,000 from city collection fees under contracts that do not expire until he leaves office. Porter last year planned to charge eight Gwinnett cities a total of $110,000 in personal fees. She ended up making about $36,000 from three cities after several decided to collect their own taxes instead.

Porter currently has contracts to collect for Grayson — which sued her last year and did not pay personal fees — and Peachtree Corners, the largest city in Gwinnett.

Peachtree Corners last year paid Porter $2 per parcel for a total of nearly $29,000. Berkeley Lake paid Porter $1 per parcel last year for a total of about $1,400, but will contract only with the county this year.

The contracts last four years but are adjusted annually to the number of parcels, according to Porter’s office.

Porter is taking time off for health reasons without an established return date, said Susan McLeod, spokeswoman for her office. Chief Deputy Tax Commissioner Denise Mitchell is running the office in Porter’s stead.

Lim said HB 1280 would not apply to long-term contracts that predate it. The Georgia Association of Tax Officials collaborated with the statewide advocacy organizations for county and city governments to help write the bill.

“There has been a tremendous amount of scrutiny over the compensation that current law has allowed because there is no cap,” said Kevin Payne, the Floyd County tax commissioner and GATO’s legislative chair. “This does compensate the tax commissioner but it takes away the scrutiny of having that compensation considered excessive.”

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Tax commissioners in counties with 500,000 or more residents currently earn a minimum salary of $135,500 under state law. If HB 1280 becomes law, their income from all city contracts would be capped at a total of $67,750. Counties with fewer residents have lower minimum salaries and would have lower caps.

Gwinnett County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson praised the bill, as did District 1 Commissioner Kirkland Carden.

“I’m happy to see the legislature acting in a bipartisan way to help not just these eight cities but the entire state of Georgia,” Carden said.