Fulton tax chief takes federal farm dollars, too

Arthur and Betty Ferdinand bought their 70-acre farm in south Fulton County in 2003, using a county employee as a middleman. The county’s ethics board ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue charges. BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Arthur and Betty Ferdinand bought their 70-acre farm in south Fulton County in 2003, using a county employee as a middleman. The county’s ethics board ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue charges. BRANT SANDERLIN /BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJ

Credit: BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJ

AJC WATCHDOG COVERAGE

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered an array of issues involving the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office, including its sales of tax debts to private collection firms and tax chief Arthur Ferdinand’s take-home pay. Through $1-per-parcel fees charged to Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs, Ferdinand boosts his annual pay by hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, making him the state’s highest-paid elected official.

This year, the AJC revealed how Ferdinand’s quick sales of delinquent tax bills, before the county collected a 10 percent penalty, handed as much as $20 million in potential revenues to Vesta Holdings, the biggest lien buyer, with a corresponding $20 million loss to taxpayers. The AJC also discovered that Ferdinand dipped into his budget to buy a 2013 Ford Explorer Limited for $39,000, which he can use for his commute to work.

Another investigation revealed he has been earning an extra $22,000 to $31,000 per year by taking 50 cents every time he sells a tax lien to a collector or a taxpayer pays off a lien themselves, which critics called a staggering conflict of interest.

Then the AJC revealed Ferdinand personally intervened after a tax debt owed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s real estate holding company, Cascade Investors, was sold to Vesta. The Tax Commissioner’s Office got the debt transferred back to the county, then later filed documents asking the Superior Court Clerk to remove all liens filed against Cascade from the record.

Today’s story reveals yet another source of revenue Ferdinand has found: federal farm subsidies.

Metro Atlanta’s top EQIP recipients

An analysis of farm bill data found that of all farmers in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdindand has recieved the second-highest allocation of funds during the past decade. The top five recipients:

Recipient / County / Allocations / Payments to date

J. Wayne Stradling* / Fulton / $43,600 / $30,498

Arthur Ferdinand / Fulton / $34,609 / $26,091

Chad Williams / Cobb / $30,409 / $30,409

Jerry R. Watson / Fulton / $26,457 / $26,457

Westwind Farm Inc. / Fulton / $23,028 / $23,028

* Stradling received additional funding — another $75,700 allocated — for farms in Coweta and Heard counties.

Source: Data provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service under a federal Freedom of Information Act request

About EQIP

  • Originally authorized by the 1996 farm bill
  • Funded at more than $4 billion since its inception
  • Purpose: To help agricultural producers manage their operations in ways that protect soil, water, plant, animal and air resources, on both farmland and forestland.
  • Provides financial and technical help through contracts of up to 10 years.
  • EQIP contracts in Georgia totaled $13.4 million in 2011, $24.8 million in 2012 and $28.6 million this year.
  • An estimated one out of every three EQIP applicants receives funding in Georgia, but no farmers have been turned down in Fulton County in the past several years because so few applied.
  • Benefits are limited to individuals or entities with adjusted gross incomes of $1 million per year or less.
  • Records show Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has received four allocations: $11,543 (2005), $5,346 (2009), $3,531 (2011) and $14,188 (2013). For the 2013 contract, he has yet to receive $8,518, data shows.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture literature; data provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service under a federal Freedom of Information Act request; federal data compiled by the Environmental Working Group; Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District Chairman Alan Toney

Fulton County’s tax collector, Georgia’s top-paid elected officeholder, has tapped another source of taxpayer money: U.S. farm bill subsidies.

It’s for his cows.

Along with being tax commissioner, Arthur Ferdinand raises Angus cattle in rural Chattahoochee Hills, about 30 miles southwest of downtown Atlanta.

He acquired the farm in a shabby state a decade ago, then used public funds to help spruce up his pastures, taking in tens of thousands of dollars to put up fences, install watering stations, enhance grass quality and make other improvements to an operation he calls “Chaguanas Farm,” an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

The funds came through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that encourages eco-friendly land management, and Ferdinand has been one of the metro area’s top recipients of the subsidies during the past decade, data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shows.

Though legal, it’s yet another way the Atlanta official has steered public money his way, even as many of his constituents struggled to pay their bills in the wake of the Great Recession.

The taxman known for his aggressive collection tactics has also used legal loopholes to pocket fees from the county and three cities, boosting his take-home pay to upwards of $380,000 per year, previous investigations by the AJC discovered. Ferdinand now earns close to triple the pay of the governor and nearly as much as the U.S. president, even though his base salary is just $134,279.

Meanwhile, he has spent thousands of county taxpayer dollars taking his highest-paid staffers on budget-planning trips to lakefront luxury lodges and dining with unidentified individuals for business lunches at posh restaurants. Last year, he spent $39,000 of his department's funds to buy himself a take-home 2013 Ford Explorer Limited.

Ferdinand has responded that state law allows his extra compensation, and that his methods, including selling unpaid bills to private collection firms, keep the county flush with cash and tax rates low.

But incensed state lawmakers have pushed measures to stop Ferdinand from enriching himself off public office, and at least two bills targeting him are expected in next year’s legislative session.

His beef operation is modest — about 30 head of cattle on 70 acres. He apparently qualified for aid as a beginning cattleman earning less than $1 million per year.

“I’m not surprised he’s found another way to skin the cat,” said state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, Ferdinand’s foremost critic in the Legislature.

The AJC found that, since 2005, the federal government has allotted Ferdinand almost $35,000 in Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, money — the second-most given to any farmer in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.

Some conservationists were shocked he has been a recipient and questioned the program’s priorities.

“I would prefer to tighten these things up so that farmers of need get them,” said Alan Toney, the elected chairman of the Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District, a citizen oversight committee. “Like with any other government program, there’s things that you wish were different.”

Living a dream

Ferdinand did not respond to messages seeking information about his cattle farm or the subsidies. A call to Chaguanas was answered by his wife, Betty.

She said the government gave them the money because their farm met all the program specifications, and she advised staying away from “things you don’t understand.”

“I’ve spoken to you longer than you deserve,” she said after a brief conversation, “so I’m hanging up.”

The Ferdinands sparked controversy when they bought the property in 2003, leading to a hearing before the county’s ethics board, but no charges.

The tax chief used Tom Biggers, his delinquent-tax administrator at the time, as a middleman to buy it from Foxworthy Inc., a company that had bought millions of dollars in tax deeds from the county.

Ferdinand has said he needed Biggers’ help because, in the past, he and his wife had problems buying property in Georgia because they are black. He said his office had no involvement in the bank foreclosure auction where Foxworthy obtained the land.

The board ruled unanimously that there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue ethics charges.

In affidavits filed in the case, the Ferdinands said they shared a dream of owning their own farm, and Betty Ferdinand said she led the search for income-producing acreage.

She described the land they chose, off Hutcheson Ferry Road, as abandoned and overgrown, with a dilapidated swimming pool and a burned-out house. They also bought an adjacent property with a house that they planned to rent out.

They named the land Chaguanas, which is the largest borough of Trinidad and Tobago, Arthur Ferdinand’s native country. Their driveway is within a few hundred yards of an entrance to south Fulton’s eco-chic Serenbe community.

They don’t live there; county records show their primary residence is in southwest Atlanta.

Saving nature or boosting production?

An online article produced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of USDA, touts the Ferdinands' farm as "another conservation success story." It describes the couple spending four years clearing kudzu and brush before they could start farming.

The article says Ferdinand sought help getting started from the county extension office, which directed him to USDA.

Through EQIP, taxpayers helped turn his property around.

The federal government chipped in almost $2,800 in fencing costs, more than $1,700 for pasture and hayland planting, $3,000 for drinking stations and $3,300 for grading, graveling and soil protection, records of his earliest contract show.

Ferdinand has since been allotted another $11,000 for electric and barbed-wire fencing, $4,200 for graveling and $2,100 for cow watering.

The farm improvements allow them to rotate the cattle between grazing sections and protect the paths where the cows trod, the agency reported.

“Establishing these practices has increased the quality of grass and hay supply on their land, diminishing the need for extra additives in his cattle’s food supply,” the article said. “ … All of these practices cut down on the daily upkeep of the land, thus lowering overall cost.”

EQIP isn’t designed to supplement farmers’ income, but rather to keep farmers from sullying the environment, according to Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington research organization pushing for farm bill reform.

Like rotating crops, rotating cattle among different grazing areas cuts down on erosion, reducing sediment runoff into tributaries of the Chattahoochee. Fences and alternative water sources keep cows out of streams.

But Cox, the organization’s senior vice president over agriculture and natural resources, said the federal government shouldn’t be paying farmers to do things they ought to do anyway. Cox questions whether too much of the billions of dollars spent on EQIP since the 1990s has gone to helping farmers maximize profits, rather than solving environmental problems.

“This could have been designed to solve a problem that is worth the taxpayer investment,” Cox said of the funds for Ferdinand. “But it could have been designed to improve his pasture so he can graze more cattle, and the cattle gain more weight.”

Valerie Pickard, the USDA’s district conservationist for the metro Atlanta area, approved Ferdinand’s application based on a ranking system. She said concerns about water sources near Ferdinand’s property played into in his allocation. Some of the funds went toward fencing off a pond.

“It’s helping them to achieve their goal of having a farm,” she said, “to maintain a farm and preserve its natural resources.”

The larger picture

Willard, the state representative, said lawmakers can’t do anything about Ferdinand’s federal aid. They’ll focus instead on shrinking his power and forcing a pay cut.

One bill pending in the Senate would make the Fulton tax commissioner an appointed position starting in 2017, meaning that if Ferdinand wants to stay on after his current term ends, when he’ll be 76, he would work at the pleasure of county commissioners instead of voters.

Another measure being drafted would undo a law dating to the Great Depression, when many constitutional officers got paid through fees rather than salaries, allowing tax commissioners to collect 50 cents every time a debtor paid off a tax lien.

An AJC investigation last summer exposed how Ferdinand seized upon that law to profit off his controversial practice of selling liens to private collectors, adding about $22,000 to $31,000 per year to his annual pay.

Frank X. Moore, an attorney who has represented more than a dozen property owners pitted against debt buyers and Ferdinand’s office, said taxpayers should also be concerned about the nearly $35,000 he’s receiving for his cows.

“That’s a whole lot of money to Rita James, who gets by on $700 a month in Social Security,” he said of one client, a grandmother in her 70s who nearly lost her home because of a billing error and a lien sale. “This guy has no shame. He seems to be an expert at benefiting from government.”

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