In two decades as Fulton County tax commissioner, Arthur Ferdinand has used Georgia’s antiquated revenue laws to increase the $70,000 salary he earned in 1997 to more than $490,000 in total compensation — with no end in sight.
Ferdinand now makes almost $100,000 more than the President of the United States, and nearly three times the salary of Georgia’s governor.
County tax commissioners in Georgia can legally contract with cities to do their taxes and charge a fee for the service, and at least 48 do, according to a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution/Georgia News Lab investigation. But no public official has profited more from the fee system than Ferdinand, who has agreements with four cities and contracts pending with two more.
The Fulton tax commissioner earns more in fees from the city of Atlanta alone — $225,000 — than he does from his current county salary of $161,000. And he’s managed to grow his income despite a 2017 state law that abolished controversial fees he once earned from selling tax liens.
Critics say Ferdinand and other tax commissioners who pocket such fees are using their public office for personal gain. Each of Georgia’s neighboring states bar the practice.
Ferdinand has not disclosed his extra earnings to taxpayers since at least 2010, despite Georgia’s law requiring elected officials to disclose outside fees and income on financial reports available to the public. The AJC and Georgia News Lab spent months tracing the sources Ferdinand’s income, which involved contacting and obtaining information from the county and each of Fulton’s 15 cities.
In 2017, the AJC reported Ferdinand’s total compensation for 2016 was about $390,000. But that analysis did not include about $71,000 that Ferdinand now earns from Atlanta for collecting a special 911 emergency services assessment on Atlanta property owners. It also did not include the fees that Ferdinand began earning in 2017 from the new city of South Fulton for collecting its taxes.
Ferdinand also has contracts with the cities of Sandy Springs and Johns Creek, and he is poised to begin earning fees on two new tax collection contracts with the cities of Chattahoochee Hills and Mountain Park.
The tax commissioner lives on a 70-acre farm about 30 miles southwest of Atlanta, and has also faced criticism for accepting public farm subsidies on his property.
Ferdinand canceled an interview with the AJC, and stopped responding to requests that he comment for this story. In the past he has defended his fee income from cities as legal under Georgia law, and pointed to strong collection rates as proof that he delivers a good value for cities.
“If he’s entitled to it, which he is, we’re more than glad to pay it,” Mountain Park City Clerk Karen Segars said in an email. “The tax commissioner’s office does us a huge service.”
But not all tax commissioners choose to take advantage of the fee system in the way that Ferdinand has.
“It has never even occurred to me to negotiate any additional funds for myself,” Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Richard Steele told the AJC. “My personal opinion is that I’m already adequately compensated by my salary. It’s the work of the office that has to be done because it takes this entire office to do the job.”
“My personal opinion is that I’m already adequately compensated by my salary. It’s the work of the office that has to be done because it takes this entire office to do the job.” —Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Richard Steele, who does not take extra fees
Steele’s office calculates the exact amount of resources and money it takes to collect taxes for eight Gwinnett cities and then bills individual cities for the cost. The cities pay the county, not Steele.
On the other hand, Fulton County charges six cities 1% of their tax collections for the county’s administrative overhead, without calculating the exact cost of the service. Ferdinand collects and keeps an additional $1 per parcel for four of these cities on top of the county charge. Nine cities in the county choose to bill their own taxes.
New contract, new fee
During much of the time that Ferdinand has grown his compensation from $70,000 to nearly $500,000 — an increase of 600 percent — the Legislature has made halting efforts to curb or abolish tax commissioner fees.
When the city of Sandy Springs was established in the mid-2000s, Ferdinand approached the new city with a personal contract and fee of $26,000 to collect the city’s taxes. Longtime former city attorney and and state legislator Wendell Willard was flabbergasted by Ferdinand’s ask given that the tax commissioner collected the county taxes for no fee before the city was incorporated.
In 2007, Willard set out to abolish the fee system throughout Georgia but encountered stiff opposition from tax commissioners and other lawmakers who they lobbied to oppose regulation. The resulting bill required contracts for city tax collection to be negotiated through the county, thereby making the arrangements more transparent. But the legislation exempted all but the largest counties and preserved the ability of tax commissioners to negotiate a separate fee for themselves from the cities.
In 2013, Ferdinand angered some taxpayers — and lawmakers — when the AJC reported that he was aggressively selling delinquent tax liens to a private debt collector — and pocketing a $.50 fee on each transaction.
Critics said the practice gave Ferdinand a financial incentive to sell the liens, and lawmakers vowed to stop it. Some also tried once again to make the Fulton tax commissioner an appointed, rather than elected, position and limit the job’s compensation.
The proposal never passed. And the Legislature did not succeed in abolishing fees collected on tax liens until 2017, which cut Ferdinand’s compensation by up to $31,000.
Unbeknownst to most taxpayers, however, Ferdinand was already benefiting from a new fee from the city of Atlanta even as the controversy over the lien fees was percolating in the General Assembly.
In 2015, Atlanta assessed property owners a new fee to generate more revenue for its 911 emergency call center, which was operating at a deficit.
Ferdinand began collecting the 911 service fee from property owners — and pocketing $.50 from each residential and commercial parcel. The assessment, $26 for single-family residential owners and $307 for others, was added to an existing garbage collection bill that Ferdinand was already collecting for the city.
The fee generates about $71,000 in extra income for Ferdinand and is more than twice what the tax commissioner lost when the Legislature took away his ability to earn fees from selling tax liens.
Atlanta could hire two 911 dispatchers for what it pays Ferdinand to collect the assessment.
“If the people want to elect someone who’s immoral, that’s democracy. ... This stuff about Ferdinand has been known for a decade or more. And the people keep voting him in office.” — R.J. Morris, who ran against Arthur Ferdinand in 2012
Lora Hawk, an Atlanta resident, was unaware a portion of the 911 fee she pays contributes to the tax commissioner’s income.
While she thinks the tax commissioner and his office employees should be well-paid, she doesn’t understand why Ferdinand’s “already inflated salary” has increased even more.
“You’re essentially padding the pocket of an individual to provide basic emergency services for people,” Hawk said. “You have to question (the) systems and serve your moral compass.”
‘This is an embarrassment’
Following the AJC’s reporting on the fee system in June, which revealed that dozens of other Georgia tax commissioners also collect fees, some current and former state lawmakers said the Legislature should once again attempt to curb or eliminate it.
“I encourage my friends who followed me in the Legislature to pick up the baton and run with it and set aside this ancient practice for good,” said former Atlanta Rep. Edward Lindsey, who co-sponsored the bill to change the Fulton County tax commissioner’s elected position to an appointed one in 2013. “This is an embarrassment, and it’s a relic of an ancient past.”
» FROM 2014: Fulton tax chief takes federal farm dollars, too
Fulton County District 2 Commissioner Bob Ellis told the AJC that there won’t be a fix until the state decides to say: “This is what it’s going to be and that form of compensation is disallowed.”
Fulton County voters have also been reluctant to challenge Ferdinand over the past two decades. Ferdinand ran unopposed in 2004, 2008 and 2016.
In 2012, two Fulton County taxpayers stepped up to run against Ferdinand after feeling that the tax commissioner had wronged them by selling tax liens on their properties too quickly.
Both candidates pledged not to take fees and be less aggressive about selling tax liens to debt collectors. Both lost.
R. J. Morris, one of the candidates, said Ferdinand’s high collection rate earns him the support of government officials, who need the funds he collects for public projects. Voters don’t understand the behind-the-scenes complexities of the tax system, Morris said.
“If the people want to elect someone who’s immoral, that’s democracy,” said Morris, who also served two years on the Fulton County Board of Assessors. “This stuff about Ferdinand has been known for a decade or more. And the people keep voting him in office — not just voting him in barely. He wins through landslides.”
In the meantime, Fulton cities such as Atlanta will keep paying Ferdinand what he asks.
“Right now, it’s allowed in law,” Atlanta City Council President Felicia Moore said. “As long as he has the ability to do that, and if the city wants to use his service, then we need to pay that fee. If it changes, I’d be happy with that, too.”
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