Status of personal fees for new Gwinnett tax commissioner is unclear

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Almost three months after the death of former Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Tiffany Porter in the middle of her term, it is unclear whether her successor will receive personal fees for collecting taxes from Gwinnett County’s largest city, as Porter did.

Porter last year charged personal fees of $2 per parcel to Peachtree Corners, boosting her salary by nearly $29,000. Peachtree Corners was the only city still contracted to pay Porter personal fees at the time of her death in May. Seven other cities backed out of contracts with Porter over the course of a year in a backlash after she imposed similar fees on them.

The personal fees were paid directly to Porter, on top of $1.80-per-parcel fees to reimburse the tax commissioner’s office for the cost of municipal billing.

Many county tax commissioners in Georgia charge personal fees to cities, but the amounts charged by Porter and Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand led to a law last year denying tax commissioners in both counties the power to negotiate new contracts with municipalities.

Grayson and Berkeley Lake have contracted directly with the county under the new law, agreeing to pay the $1.80-per-parcel reimbursement but no personal fees.

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Upon Porter’s death, then-Chief Deputy Tax Commissioner Denise Mitchell took over the remainder of her term, which lasts through 2024. Mitchell said earlier this month that she has not been involved in negotiations with Peachtree Corners. She and city officials were still waiting Wednesday for a draft contract from the county law department.

“I have served for 24 years in the tax commissioner’s office,” Mitchell said in a statement. “I could have retired five years ago but chose not to because I love what I do and I love this county. Money is not my main motivation. In fact, I took a substantial pay cut when I became the tax commissioner.”

The county did not respond to questions about whether the draft contract would include personal fees for Mitchell.

Louis Svehla, spokesman for Peachtree Corners, said officials did not know whether the county would propose the city pay Mitchell personal fees.

“It may be an extension of the (previous) contract,” he said. “It depends on the legalese.”

Tax bills are scheduled to go out Sept. 1 at the earliest.

A bill that would have brought Fulton and Gwinnett’s tax commissioners back to the negotiating table, but limited their fees, died this spring when lawmakers ran out of time to reconcile competing versions.

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House Bill 1280 would have capped tax commissioners’ personal fees at half their statutory minimum salaries, which are set according to county population. In Fulton and Gwinnett, the largest two counties in Georgia, tax commissioners’ total fees from all city contracts would have been limited to $67,750. The law would not have applied retroactively to contracts that predated it.

The bill passed the House unanimously, but the version that passed the state Senate on the last day of the legislative session included retirement benefits similar to 401(k) plans for county tax commissioners. The two bills were not reconciled before legislators gaveled out for the year.

State Rep. Marvin Lim, a Norcross Democrat and the bill’s author, said he supported the Senate version. Many of the 159 counties in Georgia are small and their tax commissioners do not have retirement benefits, he said.

“Their work could be more difficult because they don’t have the staff, and they are the ones who might not qualify for retirement, despite the importance of their role to local government,” Lim said.

The Gwinnett tax commissioner is eligible for a county retirement plan, but a statewide plan for county tax commissioners foundered two years ago over its benefits to Ferdinand. The highest-paid elected official in Georgia, he makes nearly $500,000 per year, largely from personal fees that cities pay him.