Retirement plan questioned as tax officials add fees to salaries

Legislators are questioning a proposal to create a state retirement plan for county tax commissioners, noting that it could provide an extra pension for the state's highest-paid elected official.

Among those who could benefit is Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, who earns a $491,193 salary because of a system that allows him to receive a fee for collecting taxes from cities.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution report in 2019 showed 48 of those commissioners pocket thousands in fees from cities that pay for tax collection services.

Ferdinand was invoked by legislators questioning the measure, House Bill 593, at a Jan. 14 House Retirement Committee hearing. Ferdinand's base salary is $161,312. It was unclear Friday whether Ferdinand is eligible for Fulton County government employee retirement benefits.

"He ought to do pretty well on his retirement on his $400,000-plus salary on his own," said state Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, a committee member.

State Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, D-Norcross, another committee member, also questioned the creation of a state retirement plan for county tax commissioners when nearly one-third of them add city collection fees to their paychecks, citing the 2019 AJC investigation.

Some tax commissioners, including those in Cobb and Gwinnett counties, are eligible for retirement plans offered to county employees. The Cobb and Gwinnett tax commissioners do not collect fees and earn a set salary.

Other tax commissioners in smaller counties are not able to enroll in a county retirement plan, said Floyd County Tax Commissioner Kevin Payne, who was at the meeting representing the Georgia Association of Tax Officials. They also make significantly less than Ferdinand, Payne said.

“That is not the norm, not the average, not the reality,” Payne said. “We have tax commissioners that have no retirement, making $45,000 doing a very difficult job for their constituents, and they have no retirement whatsoever. This bill is to help those people. To me, this is a completely different issue. … I don’t think anyone else is making that kind of money or anywhere close to it.”

Under HB 593, commissioners could opt into a state retirement plan funded by a new $3 late fee on overdue tax bills. That fee would be on top of any existing penalties counties levy for late payments. Commissioners would contribute $109 each month from their own salaries and could participate in the plan for up to 20 years. Once retired, they could receive up to $34,560 annually.

"No taxpayer who pays their property tax bill on time will ever contribute a penny to this retirement plan," said House Retirement Chairman Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who sponsored the bill. HB 593 passed in committee and is currently awaiting a full House vote.

Another piece of legislation, House Bill 835, would eliminate the fee collections that boost the pay of tax commissioners. State Rep. Scot Turner, R-Holly Springs, also cited Ferdinand's nearly half-million-dollar salary as a reason for filing the bill.

“The tax commissioner for Fulton County earns several hundreds of thousands of dollars collecting fees and using it for his own personal compensation,” Turner said. “The work is actually being done by employees in the tax commissioner’s own office. There’s no additional work for the tax commissioner.”

Under Turner’s bill, the tax commissioner’s office could only collect the amount of money it costs the office to collect that city’s property taxes. That money would go back to the tax commissioner’s office, but only county commissioners could give any of it directly to the commissioner.

“If they needed to raise salaries or hire additional workers, they could do that,” Turner said. “If they chose to pay the tax commissioner an additional bonus, but there would be an elected official making the decision whether that happens.”

Turner hopes the bill can spark conversation about the issue and lead to change.

“At least it’s out there and people can start debating it,” Turner said.

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