Reform legislation is retaliation, tax commissioner says

For the third year in a row, the legislature is considering limiting the sale of tax liens to private collection companies. And for Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, this time it’s personal.

Ferdinand is the only tax commissioner in the state to rely on the sales to collect a sizable portion of overdue tax bills.

In letters to Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, and Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, Ferdinand framed the legislative effort as a personal attack by lawmakers who had liens placed against their property. Similarly, he dismissed Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations into the sale of liens as retaliation for liens he placed on property of the paper's parent company, Cox Enterprises.

“These discussions have progressed to a public onslaught of innuendo and my character which is a clear indication that this campaign for ‘change and reform’ solely directed at my office is more of a personal agenda, rather than a public one,” Ferdinand wrote. “In fact I wish to provide to the Fulton delegation some real clear facts that should not and cannot be ignored which show that the actions being taken against me by members of this great body and Cox Enterprises through the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) is simply retaliatory.”

There is no tax lien bill currently before the legislature. But Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, the driving force behind legislation this year, said language regarding lien sales is still under consideration. That language could be added to a bill that’s already been approved by the House.

Willard wouldn’t discuss specifics. Earlier in the session he said he might increase debt notification requirements, require the county to have a searchable database of lien sales or even pursue a total ban on sales. He has also said he wants to forbid transferring liens until bills are six months overdue and slash in half both the 10 percent penalty and 1 percent monthly interest charged to delinquent taxpayers.

An AJC analysis of Fulton tax data found Ferdinand gave Vesta Holdings the opportunity to collect a potential $20 million in late fees that would otherwise go to fund Fulton County government.

The AJC also reported that days after he sold thousands of liens to Vesta last fall, his office told a smaller lien investor that the lien sales program was temporarily suspended. And last December Ferdinand’s office announced the availability of 2012 liens via an email to five people. A government ethics expert said that is not a transparent process.

Ferdinand did not dispute those findings in his letters to Riley and Hill.

Instead, Ferdinand enclosed documentation detailing the sale of liens on the property of critics and Cox.

Since 1998 Ferdinand sold to Vesta Holdings three liens on property of Willard’s.

His office also sold an $88 lien for a late fee against the property of House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, who also supports a change to the lien sale process. Jones has said she never received notification of the late fee and says lack of notification is a problem for many Fulton taxpayers.

Ferdinand sold a 2001 lien for $52 on property of County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who has called for an investigation of lien sales that allowed Vesta to collect millions of dollars in late fees. Hausmann said her mortgage company got its wires crossed and sent her taxes in late, but she did not even know about the lien until last year.

“I have no beef with the tax commissioner,” she said. “I do think the penalty issue you guys uncovered is significant. I think $20 million deserves a look.”

Ferdinand also included documentation of several liens he said were placed against Cox properties and sold to Vesta. One was for $21. The largest was for $39,000.

“One can only deduce that by failing to disclose their own liens, they essentially had an ulterior motive along with their cohorts in the delegation in this effort to discredit me,” he wrote.

A statement issued by Cox Enterprises said that as a consistent business practice, it processes and pays all property taxes when bills are received. “After looking into the properties in question and issues raised, we have been in contact with the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office to obtain written confirmation of one, outstanding lien for approximately $500. Our records indicate we have satisfied all other obligations we are aware of for Fulton County taxes.”

In his letter, Ferdinand accused the AJC of launching a two-year open records battle with him the day after his office placed a lien against a Cox property.

But three weeks before Ferdinand placed the lien, the AJC had started issuing open records requests for lien sales data. It took action after Ferdinand refused to discuss how many liens he sold, how much he sold them for and who bought them.

In the lengthy legal fight that followed the initial request, the AJC issued many additional requests, including one the day after Ferdinand placed the lien against the Cox property.

AJC reporters did not know of the lien against Cox when they started writing about controversy over the sale of tax liens to private collection companies. The tax commissioners’ website listed the owner of that property as the Fulton County Development Authority.