Newton County residents have had their passports processed by the Newton County Superior Court clerk for many years, but a longstanding state law that allows the clerk of courts to take the $25 passport processing fee as personal income is being scrutinized and reconsidered across the state.
The majority of Georgia counties, nearly 60 percent, offer passport processing through either the probate or Superior court, but court clerks handle the fees in different ways, with some keeping the money as personal income and others giving the fees to the county as revenue.
Newton County Clerk of Superior Court Linda Hays has taken the $25 passport fee as income since early 2009, which she said totals around $40,000 per year, but said Tuesday she spends around 60 to 70 percent of the funds on her employees and various charities.
Prior to 2009, the fees went to the county as revenue, and in 2008 the county received $49,060, according to county records received Tuesday. Hays was still gathering the fees received by her office for the past two years; she said federal law mandates that all records older than two years be destroyed because many passport documents include personal information.
In neighboring Rockdale County, passport processing fees were both taken as personal income and given to the county, according to an article in the Rockdale News.
Passports are federal documents and under U.S. and Georgia law, people and organizations, namely superior court clerks, probate courts and post offices, that process them on a local level are allowed to be compensated for their additional work by keeping a $25 processing fee. The passport itself costs $110 and that money is sent directly to the U.S. State Department.
Hays said she is responsible for paying all tax on the income and only deducts around $1,500 per year in postage costs from sending passports to the state department.
Her yearly salary was $125,367 based on documents requested and received by The News in 2011. Hays is one of the highest paid county officials because she is among the county's longest serving. Salaries of constitutional officers are determined by a state-defined formula based on population and numbers of terms served in addition to annual cost of living adjustments, which are not given every year, according to the website of the Constitutional Officers Association of Georgia.
Hays is certified to process passports along with four other employees in the clerk of courts office. Because court clerk employees handle jury orientation and an employee has to be in every court trial, Hays said it's necessary for multiple people to be certified to process passports. Passport processing is offered daily.
Hays said she began taking the processing fees as income because her department's workload was increasing as its budget was decreasing. She said her department, which has 13 employees, processed more than 60,000 civil and 50,000 criminal documents on top of foreclosure, notaries and other various documents. The department also recently took over the board of equalization, which handles property tax assessments.
"I'll follow the law in everything I do. If people want the law changed (and that happens) then we'll change our practices," said Hays, who said the fees haven't been an issue since she was elected in 1982. "I tried to do the thing I thought was right."
Hays said she has focused on improving the workplace, including using fee money to have the office cleaned every month, repair deed and other document books and buy food, gifts and office accessories for employees. This year she is working with the court's software vendor, Iron Data, to develop a phone tree application that will allow court personnel to more easily communicate schedule changes to jurors, instead of having to call each one individually.
"I do anything I can do to keep them from having to bear expense. I appreciate all of the hard work they do and we have to do. Our work is dated and timed, so we can't just put it aside until we have the time to do it," Hays said.
Hays said she also donates a significant amount of money to charities that raise funds in the fight against cancer, because her family has been particularly hard hit by the disease.
State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, said he didn't know when the law was first passed, but said it's been around forever.
"Learning some history, there was a time when a fair percentage of counties were strapped enough that they had trouble paying the clerks well enough to attract good, quality people," Holt said Tuesday. "It was passed originally to be a way to supplement pay to bring in higher quality folks."
Holt said the law probably hasn't been looked at too closely in years past, but also said there are some counties where it is probably still needed. As far as he knew, previously proposed bills aimed at changing the law haven't gone too far.
The processing fees are kept as personal income by clerks of courts in Alabama as well, according to a story by the Huntsville Times, though officials are working to remove additional fees paid to various constitutional officers, such as sheriff and probate judge.
According to the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, clerk of courts is only one office that receives other fees in addition to salary. Some tax commissioners in Georgia are still paid a commission based upon the tax digest in lieu of salary and probate judges may keep up to $7,500 per year of vital records (such as birth and death certificates) as personal compensation in addition to the state minimum salary.