Bill to rein in Ferdinand dies in Senate

Another year and more complaints about Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand didn’t make much difference in the General Assembly, where legislation to change the way he handles late property tax bills once again died.

House Bill 819 would have stopped Ferdinand from personally profiting when people are late on their taxes. It also would have required tax commissioners across Georgia to make an extra effort to track down property owners before selling their tax debts to private bill collectors.

But HB 819 was one of a handful of bills on the Senate calendar last week that didn’t even get a vote before the Senate adjourned Thursday. Two of the bill’s Republican sponsors blamed their colleagues in the Senate for its demise.

“We’ve got one of the most scurrilous politicians in Georgia, a Democrat, right here, and Republicans are protecting him,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, a co-sponsor of HB 819.

State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, said there was no attempt to protect the tax commissioner.

“Last year there were a slew of bills that didn’t get called up,” Beach said. “That’s just the 40th day (of the legislative session).”

Ferdinand collects hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes annually for Fulton County schools and local governments. A series of Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations in recent years has highlighted questionable practices in his office. Among them:

*Ferdinand’s quick sale of delinquent tax bills to private companies – before the county can collect a 10 percent penalty – has given as much as $20 million in potential profits to Vesta Holdings, the biggest lien buyer. That’s money the county could have collected.

*Some private investors have used tax liens to circumvent legal safeguards and snatch homes away from owners who got behind on their tax bills. Sometimes the companies acquired the homes for a fraction of what they’re worth.

*Most recently the newspaper found that Ferdinand, under an obscure state law, has been personally collecting 50 cents each time his office sells a tax debt to a private company or a property owner pays off a lien. That’s allowed him to boost his salary by up to $31,000 annually to about $383,000. Ferdinand may be the only tax commissioner in the state who collects the fee.

Ferdinand did not respond to a request for comment. In the past he has defended his practices as perfectly legal. He’s said he’s elected to optimize tax collections, and people wouldn’t get in trouble if they paid their bills on time. He’s said some of his critics – including Willard – have failed to pay their taxes on time.

Critics say the 50-cent fee gives Ferdinand an incentive to sell liens to private collection firms. They say he’s too quick to sell the debts, sometimes placing in financial jeopardy property owners who are unaware their taxes are late.

In response to such concerns, some state lawmakers have made several failed attempts in recent years to curtail the sale of tax liens. They’ve also tried other ways to shake up Ferdinand’s office.

Last year they introduced House Bill 346, which would have made the Fulton tax commissioner an appointed – rather than elected – position. The bill passed the House last year, but was tabled by the Senate this year and is now dead.

This year Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, sponsored HB 819. In addition to eliminating the 50-cent fee, it would have required tax commissioners to take additional steps to track down property owners who are delinquent on their taxes; for example, by doing Internet searches, using people-finder databases to track down current addresses or simply checking the telephone book.

Martin said the measures would protect ordinary people who fall behind on their taxes but can pay if given some time.

“The big companies, the people that own the office buildings downtown, they pay people to make sure the taxes get paid,” Martin said. “The people I’m concerned with are the people that are in a (poor) health situation or just a tight budget situation, paying the taxes a few months late.”

Some tax commissioners worried about the additional cost and time involved in the measures the bill required. Gwinnett Tax Commissioner Richard Steele said he typically has up to 35,000 delinquent accounts.

“Certainly we’re not going to sit here and flip through a phone book to look for 35,000 people,” Steele said.

The bill was amended to limit the extent of the extra searches. But Steele remained leery of a bill he said could force other taxpayers to pick up the tab for the extra work.

“I understand they want to make sure people are made aware of” late tax bills, he said. “But there’s only so much I can do before I’m dipping into the pocket of other taxpayers.”

HB 819 cleared the House by a vote of 173-1. An amended version passed a Senate committee on March 13. But while it was on the calendar for a full Senate vote on Tuesday and Thursday last week, it never came up for a vote.

Beach said he supported the bill. Though some of his House colleagues are angry, he said there was nothing sinister about it not getting a vote on the session’s last day, with its packed agenda and strict deadline.

“That’s just the way things happen down there,” he said. “Every year bills don’t make it.”