DeKalb County Tax Commissioner Irvin Johnson and attorney Susannah Scott participated in a candidate forum for the tax commissioner’s position at New Life Church on Monday. The third candidate in the race, former DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson, didn’t attend the forum. MARK NIESSE / MARK.NIESSE@AJC.COM.

High-paid DeKalb tax collector job up for grabs

Elections for county tax commissioner don’t usually get a lot of attention.

That changed the moment ex-DeKalb Commissioner Stan Watson, who is struggling to pay off a $150,000 lawsuit judgment and has been reprimanded for an ethics violation, jumped into the race for the county’s highest-paying job. And, just this week, current Tax Commissioner Irvin Johnson asked a judge to delay Tuesday’s special election. He argues the ballot should identify him as the incumbent.

Watson, Johnson and attorney Susannah Scott are running for the $242,000-per-year position. Whoever wins the seat will be in charge of collecting almost $1 billion annually in property and vehicle taxes.

Watson owes the money to two women who won a lawsuit last year as the result of a confrontation at a bar, according to court records. The women said that Watson falsely accused them of stealing his wallet, leading to one of them being handcuffed by police for about an hour. He later found his wallet in his car. Watson’s $40,000 salary as a commissioner was being garnished before he quit in March to run for tax commissioner.

Watson also received a public reprimand for the DeKalb Board of Ethics last year for voting twice to award his employer a county contract.

Watson didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Johnson, who has been serving as tax commissioner since Claudia Lawson retired at the end of last year, said the prospect of Watson running the tax office should give voters pause.

“As a taxpayer, I would prefer an individual who has demonstrated a record of conduct and character that’s commensurate with the responsibility,” said Johnson, who was Lawson’s chief deputy and has worked in the office for 15 years.

Scott, the daughter of former DeKalb Tax Commissioner Tom Scott and former DeKalb Commissioner Jacqueline Scott, said voters need someone they can depend on.

“Voters should make sure the person is honest,” she said. “They need to know the tax commissioner is someone working for them and willing to be held accountable.”

Johnson said his experience makes him most qualified. As Lawson’s chief deputy, he took over when she retired and thinks the ballots should label him the incumbent. By law, interim tax commissioners aren’t designated as incumbents, but Johnson believes that’s unconstitutional and says there are conflicting statutes.

He asked that the special election be delayed, but no action had been taken Friday afternoon.

Scott also touts her experience — at work as a negotiator and in the community as a volunteer — as the reason voters should choose her. She said she wants to improve customer service and look into extending the tax office’s hours.

Scott proposed adjusting employees’ hours to open the office on Saturdays and keep it open past 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.

Johnson said Scott’s idea likely would cost more. He also said it would benefit her brothers, who run an emissions testing facility nearby the tax office that could receive more business if the office is open longer.

“You’d like to think that individuals running for this office would disclose if there’s some other organization or family that’s going to benefit from the decisions that they make,” Johnson said.

Scott said there’s no conflict of interest.

“My concern is driven by what the community needs, not what my brothers need,” she said.

Another issue in the race is whether the tax commissioner should be paid so much.

The tax commissioner’s base salary is about $167,000, but cities add another $75,000 to process their local property taxes.

Scott said she’d look into reallocating that money for the tax office’s operations and staff if she’s elected.

Johnson said he wouldn’t be opposed to changing how city tax fees are distributed.

The tax commissioner’s race will appear twice on Tuesday’s Democratic Party ballot: once for a special election to fill the last seven months of the current four-year term, and again for primary for the next four-year term that starts Jan. 1. Voters may cast ballots for both. Only the special election will appear on Republican Party ballots; no Republican candidates are in the race.

Scott has raised $15,570 for the campaign; Watson has collected $11,375; and Johnson brought in $11,171, according to campaign finance reports.

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