Fulton tax chief may face pay cut

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Fulton tax chief may face pay cut

Because of a loophole in a state law -- and by personally collecting fees for billing taxes in three cities -- Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has become the state's highest-paid elected official.Taking in $347,000 last year, Ferdinand's earnings approached the level of the U.S. president.

Six north Fulton legislators say it's time he took a massive pay cut -- and some residents agree.

Ferdinand, though, says he earns his money, taking on the massive responsibility of collecting property taxes for the state's largest and sixth-largest cities, which he's not required by law to do.

"You shouldn't expect people to do additional work and not get paid," he said.

A bill introduced this legislative session by state Rep. Lynne Riley, co-sponsored by five of her fellow Northside Republicans, aims to end the personal payments by removing Ferdinand and all Georgia tax commissioners from negotiating tables when cities want county governments to handle their tax bills.

The issue shines a spotlight on how revenue totaling hundreds of millions of dollars is collected. That money is used to fund police, fire protection, parks, road paving and other services for more than a half million people.

The legislation would also apply to DeKalb Tax Commissioner Claudia Lawson, who collects fees from nine cities, including Chamblee, Dunwoody and the DeKalb portion of Atlanta.

Last year, Lawson earned more than $237,000.

Tax commissioners in Cobb and Gwinnett, meanwhile, don't collect fees.

So how were Ferdinand and Lawson able to earn so much money?

Answering that question requires a better understanding of Georgia's old way of doing things.

Throwback to fee system

There was a time when constitutional officers, such as sheriffs, probate judges and clerks of court, earned their pay by personally collecting fines and fees.In a throwback to that fee system, some county tax commissioners collect tax money for cities that don't want to do it themselves.

Those cities not only pay the county for the services, but they also pay a personal fee to the tax commissioner.

Last year, for instance, in addition to paying the county $2.76 million, Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs paid Ferdinand a personal fee of $1 per parcel.Those personal fees alone totaled $212,624.

In DeKalb County, Lawson collected a total of $50,000 in personal fees from the cities of Atlanta and Dunwoody -- and $31,260 more in personal fees from seven other cities.

State Rep. Wendell Willard, who serves as Sandy Springs' city attorney, tried to end the practice five years ago.

But Ferdinand and others were able to continue to collect the fees because of pre-existing contracts.

The new bill, which Willard is co-sponsoring, would close that loophole.

Cities could cancel their contracts with tax commissioners, then negotiate with county commissions on new pay arrangements.

Only counties could collect the money, which would be "substantially approximate" to the actual cost of doing the work.

That means the personal fees collected by the tax commissioners would end.

Fulton's help needed?

Though nine Fulton cities handle their own billing, Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs all believe they need Fulton's help.

To do it any other way, they say, would actually cost their taxpayers more money, likely with lesser returns.

After all, Ferdinand's office has staff and software in place, boasts a 99 percent collection rate thanks to his system of selling tax liens to private collection firms, and can send residents a single bill for both county and city property taxes.

In Lawson's case, the practice, she said, started with her predecessor, Tom Scott. As tax commissioner, she takes on personal liability if cities' billings are flawed, she said.

But Riley sees it differently.

"The intent is to protect taxpayers who live in cities from double taxation," Riley said. "I don't believe any public officials should receive personal fees. The county is actually providing the resources, through the manpower and the technology."

Lawson doesn't have strong feelings if legislation were to bring the payments to an end, she said. Ferdinand said he doesn't feel as if he is overcompensated.

"With respects to the merits of the bill, I'll deal with it when it's passed," he said.

Jackson County Tax Commissioner Donald Elrod, president of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, is concerned, though, that a group of Fulton lawmakers trying to cut Ferdinand's pay might set bad policy statewide.

Elrod said the law would give county commissions power to order constitutional officers to take on outside work, which his association opposes.

"It's Willard going after [Ferdinand]," Elrod said, "and it's hurting some of our smaller counties."

But Major Thompson, a 27-year Johns Creek resident, said an official profiting from taxes just "doesn't smell right."

Fulton tax chief's earnings

In addition to his regular county pay, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand personally collects $1 per parcel for handling taxes for three cities. Other tax commissioners do that, too, but Ferdinand reaps higher returns because he handles the state's largest, sixth-largest and 10th-largest cities. Here's what he earned last year:

-- County pay: $134,440 (including supplement pay)

-- Atlanta fees: $154,726-- Sandy Springs fees: $31,428

-- Johns Creek fees: $26,470

Source: Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek finance offices; Fulton County personnel office

Elected officials' pay

-- President Barack Obama: $400,000

-- Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand: $347,064

-- DeKalb County Tax Commissioner Claudia Lawson: $237,290

-- Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein: $167,210

-- Gov. Nathan Deal: $139,339

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