Gwinnett, Berkeley Lake avert bill that would allow tax commissioner fees

The Gwinnett County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved an agreement this week with the small city of Berkeley Lake that directs the county’s tax commissioner, Tiffany Porter, to collect taxes for the city without being paid any personal fees.

The Berkeley Lake City Council approved the agreement last week.

The contract pre-empts any personal collection Porter might attempt if a bipartisan bill passes in the legislature that would allow county tax commissioners to collect such fees, with a cap, and give them equal bargaining power with counties and cities in negotiating tax collection contracts. The bill, HB 1280, unanimously passed the Georgia House of Representatives earlier this month and is in a state Senate committee.

The Gwinnett County commission did not vote on municipal tax collection contracts last year until June. Tax bills go out in August.

Porter declined to comment on the Berkeley Lake contract.

Berkeley Lake Mayor Lois Salter said she was grateful to have the situation resolved and declined to give a position on the legislation.

“I don’t want to give instructions to the county commissioners or the tax commissioner,” Salter said. “I try to avoid unnecessary drama and just represent my citizens as well as I can.”

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The contract between Gwinnett County and Berkeley Lake, which runs through 2025, was approved under a current law that denies tax commissioners in Gwinnett and Fulton Counties the power to negotiate agreements for municipal tax collection. Gov. Brian Kemp signed that law last year amid controversy over the amount both tax commissioners were charging cities.

Porter planned to charge eight cities $2 per parcel for tax collection last year, which would have augmented her salary by $110,000. She ended up making $36,000 in additional salary after five of the cities terminated their contracts with her.

Berkeley Lake, with a population of about 2,000, paid Porter $1 per parcel last year, for a total of about $1,400. The city paid an additional $1.80 per parcel that went to county coffers as reimbursement for the service.

Mayors said Gwinnett cities never paid personal fees to tax commissioners until last year, when Porter took office.

Salter said confusion over the new fees and legislation delayed last year’s tax collection contracts, but this year she did not want to wait until June. And even if House Bill 1280 passes both chambers of the legislature, Kemp could take a while to sign it, she said.

“We do need to get our taxes collected and not be at the very last minute, like were were last year, struggling to figure out what we were going to do,” she said.

District 1 Commissioner Kirkland Carden said he supports HB 1280 but had no problem approving Berkeley Lake’s contract because he thought the amount Porter charged cities last year was excessive.

“I thought it was a grift for the taxpayers of Gwinnett County,” said Carden, whose mother ran against Porter in the 2020 Democratic primary election and lost.

District 2 Commissioner Ben Ku said he thought tax commissioners should only be able to collect personal fees at the discretion of the city or county.

“It would make sense to me that a reasonably compensated tax commissioner shouldn’t be able to charge more than the cost of service to cities,” he said.

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HB 1280 would cap county tax commissioners’ personal fees for city collections at half their statutory minimum salary. That means Porter could earn no more than $67,750 from all cities combined. The law does not apply to existing contracts.

Porter and many other county tax commissioners throughout Georgia charge personal fees on top of the amount cities pay counties for the cost of tax collection.

Berkeley Lake’s new contract pays $1.80 per parcel to the county but nothing to Porter personally. It mirrors the contract that the city of Grayson drew up last year with the county. Grayson won a subsequent court battle after Porter refused to collect taxes for the city.

County Commission Chairwoman Nicole Love Hendrickson also praised HB 1280, but said in a statement, “The board wanted to honor Berkeley Lake’s request to be placed in the same contractual position for tax collection as Grayson.”

Porter still has a contract to collect taxes for Peachtree Corners, the largest city in Gwinnett, which last year paid her $2 per parcel for a total of nearly $29,000.