Georgia’s elected tax commissioners get thousands in undeclared ‘fees’

Scores of Georgia’s elected county tax commissioners are exploiting the power of their office to charge cities thousands of dollars in fees for collecting their taxes, a five-month Georgia News Lab investigation has found.

The arrangements — barred in neighboring states — have allowed some tax commissioners to increase their five- and six-figure county salaries by 50% or more, the investigation found.

“This is just wrong,” said retired Sandy Springs City Attorney Wendell Willard, a former state representative who tried to eliminate the fee system in 2007.

Under Georgia law, county tax commissioners can arrange to bill and collect municipal taxes, and charge a personal fee for the service. Willard said the practice harms cities and taxpayers by allowing tax commissioners to charge unlimited sums for performing a service that should be part of their job.

"It's almost what I call a form of extortion," he said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has previously reported on the extraordinary fees that Fulton and DeKalb County tax commissioners earn from cities in their jurisdictions, making them the highest paid elected officials in Georgia. Fulton's Arthur Ferdinand earned more than $390,000 and DeKalb's Irvin Johnson earned nearly $286,000, the AJC reported in 2017.

The News Lab investigation surveyed Georgia’s 159 counties and identified at least 45 other tax commissioners who currently earn fee income for collecting city taxes. The actual number is likely higher because some responses were incomplete.

Included on the list is former Henry County Tax Commissioner David Curry, who Gov. Brian Kemp last month named state revenue commissioner, the top tax collecting official in the state.

Much of the outside income tax commissioners receive is not disclosed to taxpayers and, in a handful of cases, the counties themselves are unaware of what their tax commissioners earn, the News Lab found. And while county-funded tax offices do the work, the tax commissioner can personally keep all the fees.

No other state bordering Georgia allows local revenue officials to supplement their salaries by personally collecting fees from cities.

“The individual doesn’t get to enrich him or herself because he’s been authorized to collect taxes,” said Christopher McLaughlin, a government professor at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill who specializes in interlocal agreements. “Those fees are always paid to the government unit (in North Carolina).”

Kevin Payne, the Floyd County tax commissioner and outgoing president of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, told News Lab the fee system provides cities an efficient, cost-effective means of collecting taxes.

"In almost every situation it is much cheaper for the cities to collect with the tax commissioner, which ultimately just means it's much more tax-payer friendly," Payne said.

While true for some cities, several told the News Lab it’s more cost effective to collect their own taxes and one, Brunswick, saved tens of thousands of dollars a year by switching to self-collection.

Payne also said tax commissioners can be held personally accountable for the taxes they collect.

“If something happens to that money, I’m the one (who) would go to jail,” he said.

Willard said tax commissioners face no more liability in collecting city taxes than they do in collecting county taxes.

"Most everything that local government does, can be corrected," Willard said. "If you didn't charge enough, 'Oops. We'll send you another bill.'"

The AJC has reported on cases in which city residents were overcharged by a county and received refunds.

David Curry, Commissioner of the State Department of Revenue and the former Henry County tax commissioner, right, and Darrin Satterfield, tax commissioner for Pickens County, attend the Georgia Association of Tax Officials Conference on May 6, 2019, at the Classic Center in Athens. In 2018, Curry earned about $53,000 for collecting the city taxes of McDonough under a contract that paid the money to a limited liability company that he owns. CHRISTINA R. MATACOTTA /

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How it works in Henry County

In 2018, then-Henry Tax Commissioner David Curry earned $146,000 from the county for collecting its taxes. But Curry also earned more than $53,000 for collecting taxes for the city of McDonough, which wasn’t disclosed to voters or taxpayers.

His fee, equaling 1.5% of the city’s collections, went into his own limited liability company, DCTC. The county got nothing.

Until late April, DCTC's state registration was expired. Curry renewed it after the News Lab pointed out that the company had been administratively dissolved in 2016.

Curry said he originally approached the county about routing the money through its books, as state law intends, but county officials didn’t “want to handle” the funds. The county did not respond to requests for comment.

Curry told the News Lab that he used about one-third of the fee income for annual bonuses to his 34-member county staff, which works out to about $500 per employee.

He said he also used some money to purchase office equipment, such as televisions and furniture, and some for office parties. He said he also offered continuing education funding to his staff. The News Lab found he used $2,600 to make a political donation to a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2018.

Curry kept the rest, he told the News Lab.

McDonough homeowner Venetia Williams said she was surprised to learn that Curry had such an arrangement.

"They (tax commissioners) shouldn't do that," she said. "I mean, don't they get elected and know what their salary is? So why is he making more?"

Under Georgia law, elected officials such as Curry are required to list outside income on an annual personal financial disclosure statement, available for public inspection.

Curry instead listed only the name of his limited liability company as a business in which he has an ownership interest.

“The whole point is to disclose what the compensation of our elected and appointed officials are,” said Rick Thompson, a former director of the state ethics commission. “This is one of the exact things that should be disclosed to the public.”

Curry said his accountant handled his disclosure filing.

The News Lab obtained the disclosure statements of 43 tax commissioners who keep fees for collecting city taxes. Only one, in Bryan County, disclosed the fee.

Georgia tax officials say the pledge of allegiance during the Georgia Association of Tax Officials Conference on May 6, 2019, at the Classic Center in Athens. A closely guarded provision of Georgia law allows county tax commissioners in Georgia to earn thousands of dollars in fees for collecting city taxes, on top of their county salaries. CHRISTINA R. MATACOTTA / CMATACOTTA@AJC.COM

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Reform elusive

Georgia’s antiquated fee system stretches back more than 50 years, and has resisted sporadic attempts at reform.

Willard’s effort to eliminate it in 2007 ran into opposition in the Legislature. He said tax commissioners pressured local legislators to deliver him a message: “You’re messing with something that they don’t (like) having messed with.”

The resulting bill was watered down but introduced some new regulation.

It required tax commissioners to run their side agreements with cities through the counties — their employers. It was intended to make the arrangements more transparent and give counties the chance to recoup the cost of collecting cities’ taxes.

But after tax commissioners' allies lobbied for an exclusion, the measure exempted all but the largest counties. Existing agreements were grandfathered by law. Among the results? Some contracts held by Fulton's Arthur Ferdinand could remain in force for 50 years, or for as long as he is in office.

The law requires the amount counties charge cities for collecting taxes to "substantially approximate the cost to the county of providing the service."

But there is no limit on what tax commissioners can charge cities separately, and the News Lab investigation found that fees vary widely — from nothing, to a few hundred dollars, to tens of thousands.

Ware County charges the city of Waycross $30,000 to collect its taxes. By contract, the money is paid to the county. But in practice, 90% of the money, $27,000, goes to Tax Commissioner Roger Collins, a fact not disclosed in the contract. The county keeps $3,000, as an administrative fee.

The News Lab investigation found a few cases in which tax commissioners collect city taxes without a contract, something Willard said should never happen with taxpayer money.

“That’s taboo,” he said.

A ‘bargain’ for Tifton?

The rates tax commissioners use to calculate what to charge cities also vary widely, the News Lab found.

In Charlton County, Tax Commissioner Debra Mizell gets 10% of collections in one city and 10% of delinquent taxes in another, for about $10,000. The county gets nothing.

In Lowndes County, Tax Commissioner Rodney Cain has no written contract with the four cities for which he collects taxes, and he charges each one a different fee, from 56 cents to $1.30 per parcel in 2018. Under this informal arrangement, the county does not receive any compensation for the work.

Cain received more than $31,000 in fees in 2018 for collecting city taxes, on top of his county salary of more than $90,000.

“I send them a bill and they promptly send me a check,” Cain said. “I am very fair and reasonable with them and they understand that.”

Tift County Tax Commissioner Chad Alexander takes 2.5% off the top of the city of Tifton’s tax collections and splits it with the county, netting himself a $41,000 fee on top of his county salary of $72,000.

He said that was a bargain for Tifton.

"The city's got a deal. The county reduces their expense … and it's more efficient for the taxpayers so their millage don't go up," said Alexander. "If the city is saving money, I'm making money, the county is reducing their expense and saving the actual taxpayer money, why are we talking about pay?"

A Georgia tax officials takes notes during the Georgia Association of Tax Officials Conference on May 6, 2019, at the Classic Center in Athens. The rates tax commissioners use to charge cities for the fees they collect vary widely, the Georgia News Lab found. CHRISTINA R. MATACOTTA / CMATACOTTA@AJC.COM

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One city’s alternative

Decades ago, generating a tax bill required hours of manual entries and calculations. Today, the process relies heavily on data entry and computers. Tax offices use software to calculate a property owner’s tax from the millage rate set by a city or county, applying any exemptions to which the owner is entitled.

The tax commissioner certifies that the bills are accurate.

“It’s really adding a millage rate in a computer program and then pushing ‘print,’” said Brunswick City Manager James Drumm.

For years, Glynn County charged Brunswick $110,000 to collect the city’s taxes — $90,000 paid to the county and $20,000 to the tax commissioner. In 2017, Drumm said, newly elected Tax Commissioner Jeff Chapman wanted his fee raised to more than $40,000. Chapman acknowledged seeking an increase but disputed that amount in an email to the News Lab.

"We did some research and found out we were … paying our county government higher than most any other county in the state," said Drumm.

The city ultimately agreed to pay Chapman $26,000 — a 30% bump — plus a 2% annual increase. But the city also determined to identify an alternative.

It found one.

The city purchased software, trained seven employees and ended its contract with the county in 2018. The software and training cost the city about $9,000, Drumm said.

“We couldn’t continue to pay higher fees than it would be for us to produce the taxes ourselves,” Drumm said. “That just wouldn’t be ethical to our own residents, if we could do it cheaper.”

Contact reporters Erin Schilling and Anila Yoganathan.

How we got the story

This story was written and reported by collegiate journalists in the Georgia News Lab, an investigative reporting collaboration between Georgia’s leading journalism programs, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News.

In late 2018, the News Lab emailed open records requests to Georgia’s 159 county governments. The requests asked for salary information for county tax commissioners, as well as county records of the amount paid to tax commissioners and to counties for collecting city taxes. In mid-February, students emailed requests to nearly 100 tax commissioners, seeking copies of contracts for collecting city taxes, and the amount paid to tax commissioners and counties by cities for collecting their taxes. In the interim, students gathered tax commissioners’ personal financial disclosure reports and campaign finance disclosures from county elections offices, the state ethics commission and other sources.

Students followed up with counties and tax commissioners that did not respond to requests or provided incomplete information. They also filed additional requests with some counties for tax collection contracts. And they filed requests with more than 150 cities for copies of contracts for collecting taxes. Students interviewed dozens of government officials, including tax commissioners and city and county representatives. They also interviewed experts on tax collection policy and campaign disclosure requirements. In addition, students researched the history of Georgia’s fee system, as well as tax collection policy in neighboring states.

News Lab reporters who contributed to this story were: Jade Abdul-Malik, Georgia State University; Mauli Desai, University of Georgia; Sabrina Kerns, Kennesaw State University; Kaley Lefevre, UGA; Justine Lookenott, KSU; Erin Schilling, UGA; Ashley Soriano, UGA; Bianca Theodore, GSU; Tucker Toole, Morehouse College; Erin Valle, UGA; Anila Yoganathan, UGA.