Tax chiefs’ training held at luxury resorts

Year after year, tax chiefs from across the state pack their suitcases and motor off to some of Georgia’s top resorts, courtesy of their counties’ taxpayers and vendors.

They take along their top staffers, at a cost of thousands of dollars for rooms, travel and food. The trips have given them chances to loll on St. Simons Island’s hard-packed beach and to enjoy the vistas of the north Georgia mountains.

They also can spend time hobnobbing with county vendors, who run hospitality suites and help pay for meals and entertainment.

Such is the flavor of the annual TC Tech Conference, put on by the Tax Commissioners’ Technology Development Council of Georgia, a confederation of about 30 tax commissioners’ offices, including those in the Atlanta metro area.

Its purpose: to teach tax collectors about new technologies that can improve efficiency. Those technologies hopefully will prevent having to hire more staffers as populations increase, according to former TC Tech Chairman David Curry, who is Henry County’s tax commissioner.

But daily agendas and expense reports obtained in an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raise questions about how much of the conference is for improving operations, and how much is leisure and entertainment at public expense — or courtesy of vendors seeking government contracts.

“They seem to meet for a legitimate purpose, but the luxurious location and some of the activities would likely make most Georgians cry foul,” said William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. “If I was a tax commissioner, I would feel uncomfortable going before a commission and justifying a large expense for this in my budget.”

Conference organizers defend its locations, saying they look for the cheapest room rates at facilities that can accommodate large meetings.

For the past two years — and next — the chosen facility has been Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa in Young Harris, a state-owned getaway in the mountains near the North Carolina border.

“It’s not intended to be a vacation, and that’s what I’ve mentioned to the board before,” Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Richard Steele, TC Tech’s current chairman, said.

For whose benefit?

Last year's four-day conference had about a half-dozen presentations on legal issues, office management and collecting taxes. But there were also sessions on fascinating facts about Georgia's economy and planning for retirement, and the conference ended with a mystery dinner theater sponsored by vendors.

Attendees this year had an hour-long session titled “Drink, Steal and Swear to Become the Most Effective You.” Steele said that was leadership training.

For those willing to spend their own money, the schedules leave free time for golf. Some conferences also have provided a long afternoon free for whitewater rafting, horseback riding or massages.

Envision Payment Solutions, which has a contract with Gwinnett to handle bad check collections, sponsored a comedy magician who performed during an hour and a half lunch at the conference in June. Tyler Technologies, a software provider for Fulton’s and DeKalb’s tax offices, sponsored a campfire dinner and hayride on the final night.

Businesses pay $500 per year to be TC Tech members, and $250 to attend the conference.

Steele said the only way counties can benefit from new technology is to understand how it works, and that means meeting with the people who sell it.

“You need them as much as they need you,” he said.

Perry, of Common Cause, said the jaunts probably wouldn’t sit well with most taxpayers.

“It adds to the pay-to-play problem, the perception that county vendors have to pony up for things like that to get a contract,” he said.

Thousands of dollars a piece

Last year, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand took his top five subordinates to the conference — all of his staffers earning six-figure salaries.

The county’s cost was $6,600, expense records show, which included Ferdinand’s request for a $169 per night room with a private balcony instead of a regular room at $139 a night.

Ferdinand’s expense reports show he spent more than $8,000 for himself and five others when the TC Tech conference was at the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort in St. Simons in 2011.

He wouldn’t consent to an interview about the issue, and his 2013 expenses were not immediately available.

Steele took four employees in 2012 and seven this year, nearly doubling the cost to $6,900, according to his office. Cobb Tax Commissioner Gail Downing doubled her cost this year to about $3,600 by paying for four people to attend instead of two.

DeKalb’s Claudia Lawson couldn’t make it this year, but she sent four people, also spending about $3,600.

Steve Ellis, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, said local governments should seek webinar training before spending thousands of dollars on out-of-town trips, especially governments with falling revenues.

“To retain public confidence, they need to make sure these people are learning something and not just working on their golf game,” Ellis said.

Top places to play

At Brasstown, the sprawling lodge building overlooks an 18-hole championship golf course, which Golf Digest has ranked as one of the top places to play in Georgia. This year’s conference started Sunday evening with a fajita dinner sponsored by another contractor, Appalachian Mountain Services. The agenda showed that Tuesday afternoon was open for attendees to golf, play tennis, fish, kayak and ride horses.

In previous years, conferences were at St. Simons. The King and Prince overlooks the Atlantic and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Readers of Southern Living once voted it Georgia’s favorite beach resort. It also has an 18-hole golf course built over an 18th-century cotton, indigo and rice plantation.

The conference has also been at Lake Lanier, Stone Mountain and Callaway Gardens near Columbus, according to TC Tech Executive Director Katherine Meyer, formerly Gwinnett’s tax commissioner.

“I’m cheap,” Meyer said. “I’m always looking for deals, so I’m looking for someone that’s going to work with us and not charge for everything.”

Golf seems to be a priority for commissioners, based on documents the AJC obtained.

In 2009, Ferdinand and other tax commissioners met at Legacy Lodge at Lake Lanier to plan their next conference. A group email announcing the meeting posted three topics they had already discussed. Among them: “We talked about lowering the fees to play golf for next year,” the May 28 email says.

Beyond the minimum

The TC Tech conferences do provide some training hours required by state law — but required only for tax commissioners and deputy commissioners.

And there are plenty of chances to rack up the needed 15 hours at the annual Georgia Association of Tax Officials conference in Athens, and meetings of the Constitutional Officers’ Association of Georgia, in Savannah.

Steele said he has higher standards for himself and his staff than to do just the minimum. GATO addresses what the job is, he said, and TC Tech addresses how to get that job done in a large county.

“I don’t see how you could argue against me training my staff,” he said. “That’s for the benefit of the county.”