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Morris out to ax tax chief

State’s highest-paid elected official is targeted by lobbyist.

R.J. Morris has spent three years waging battle against Fulton County’s property tax system in appeal hearings, in courtrooms and in the chambers of the state Capitol.

As a lobbyist, he pushed for measures during the last legislative session aimed squarely at Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, but the property taxpayers’ rights bill that he helped draft died without going to a final vote.

Now Morris is confronting Ferdinand on the campaign trail. He’s counting on enough voters sharing his outrage to unseat Fulton’s tax collector, who by collecting personal fees from Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs has become the state’s highest-paid elected official, earning $347,000 last year.

Though official candidate qualifying won’t start until later this month, the Fulton tax commissioner’s race is one of several local elections already taking shape throughout the metro area. Morris faces long odds as a first-time candidate mounting a grass-roots campaign out of his basement, but controversies surrounding Ferdinand could spice up what would otherwise be a mundane race.

“I can’t believe that I actually will not beat someone like that,” said Morris, who promises not to charge personal fees. “If you vote for Arthur Ferdinand, I’ve got to say you deserve Arthur Ferdinand.”

Ferdinand counters by pointing to Morris’ personal tax troubles. A real estate investor, Morris currently owes more than $60,000 in taxes and penalties and expects to lose his last 15 properties to foreclosure.

“I find it ironic,” Ferdinand said in an email, “that someone who does not pay his own property taxes wants to run the office responsible for collecting taxes. Would he want Fulton County taxpayers to follow his example?”

Morris blames his tax problems on Ferdinand.

In 2009, the county refused to lower the nearly $6 million tax value on 73 investment properties to the $2 million he and his partners paid for them. While he was appealing the values, Ferdinand sold his unpaid tax bills to collection agencies and won’t correct them, leaving him stuck with excessive bills, Morris said.

Tax collectors don’t normally garner much attention at election time, which gives incumbents a huge advantage, said Steve Anthony, a Georgia State University political science professor. In the upcoming July 31 primary election and the Nov. 6 general election, voters are likely to be more focused on the 1-cent transportation sales tax referendum, congressional races, county commission races and — above all — the presidential election.

Morris has yet to say whether he’ll run as a Democrat — facing Ferdinand in July — or as a Republican or independent — facing him in November. He has until May 25, when qualifying ends, to decide.

Other high-profile, county-level incumbents facing challengers include DeKalb CEO Burrell Ellis, Clayton Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell and Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee.

Another contested tax commissioner race is in Cherokee County, where Sonya Little is being challenged by Kenny Phelps, a manager for the county’s engineering department, and appraiser Wade Wilkie.

Anthony, the GSU professor, said Ferdinand might be more vulnerable to a high-profile candidate who’s well-known in the business community and has access to hundreds of thousands of dollars. He estimates it would take $100,000 to $250,000 to run an effective campaign through radio, print ads, direct mailings and mass telephone calls.

The most recent campaign reports filed with the state ethics commission show Morris has raised $500 in contributions, which he says has since risen to about $2,000. Ferdinand has $22,000 in campaign funds, documents show.

“This is theoretically an obscure office, but it’s not because of the press it gets,” Anthony said. “But it’s not going to generate a lot of donations. The dilemma for a challenger is going to be getting their name out there.”

Ferdinand’s name has gotten out more so than most tax commissioners, mainly because of his high pay. Legislation pushed this year by north Fulton Republicans aimed to give him a deep pay cut by allowing cities to break their contracts with Ferdinand and negotiate directly with county commissions to get their taxes collected.

The bill got tacked on to tax legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Chip Rogers. Morris worked closely with Rogers on the bill, which died in the House.

Ferdinand has defended his fees, saying he takes on extra work by billing taxes for the state’s largest and sixth-largest cities, something he’s not required by law to do.

Opponents counter that he’s doing that extra work with county staff and county equipment.

The tax commissioner’s office has also taken heat for selling tax liens to private collection firms.

In several articles last year, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution described how homeowners, because of failings in the system, didn’t know they owed overdue taxes until their homes were being auctioned and they owed thousands of dollars in penalties to settle small bills.

Morris describes himself as a victim of that process. He said he couldn’t afford the grossly inflated taxes on his investment properties.

While he successfully battled the county in court to lower assessed values, more than a dozen liens were sold to Vesta Holdings, the largest purchaser of Fulton’s liens, and back taxes, interest and penalties on them compounded.

“To say that I couldn’t pay my taxes is ludicrous,” Morris said. “If the bills would have been corrected after I went to court, rather than being sold, which Arthur Ferdinand controls, this would never have happened.”

Rogers’ tax legislation would have banned selling tax liens, which Rogers and Morris say they suspect disproportionately targets south Fulton’s and south Atlanta’s poor, minority population.

Morris said that, if elected, he would continue selling liens. He said he would wait six months after taxes are due, though, rather than the 30 days Ferdinand gives. He said that would earn the county millions more dollars per year with five extra months of penalties going to Fulton rather than private companies.

“It’s the timing of when you sell the liens,” Morris said. “It’s not good for the people, and it’s not good for the county.”