The issue of passport fees took center stage again at Tuesday evening's Board of Commissioners work session as the Clerk of Courts proposed a new split that would give a third to charitable non-profits, a third to the county, and a third to the Clerk of Courts Office but eliminate the amount taken as income by the Clerk.
Clerk of Superior and State Courts Ruth Wilson had proposed in March to allocate the passport fees so that half was kept by her, a quarter went to the county general fund, and a quarter was kept for the Clerk of Courts Office. Clerks of Court and courts that administer passport applications are allowed by Georgia law to keep the $25 processing fee as personal income.
"The proposed plan would have been an improvement, but it's still not good enough. We need a complete break from the past practice of this office," said Wilson, who is running for re-election as a Democratic candidate.
Rockdale Emergency Relief, which operates a food pantry and a number of other programs including rent and utility assistance, was named as the first non-profit that would receive passport fee funds.
Wilson read a letter written to RER Director Ashley Roessler, who was on hand for the presentation: "On behalf of the staff of the clerk of courts office, I'm pleased to present a gift of $5,000 to be used to improve the quality of life of Rockdale County citizens in need. We know of no organization better qualified and positioned to deliver the most help to the most people quickly and efficiently. We are aware of the urgent need to find a new home for the Clothes Closet. We are encouraged to know RER is pursuing a solution."
The Clothes Closet non-profit had recently been evicted from the county owned facility on Oakland Avenue via a letter that cited the facility lack of soundness.
A panel of community service representatives, yet to be named, would give imput on how to dispense the non-profit portion of the passport fee funds, said Wilson.
The Clerk of Courts Office will also begin in July posting monthly information on its website of how many passports are processed, the amount of revenue gathered in passport fees, and the total balance, said Wilson.
"This three legged stool will sit on a platform of transparency," she said.
Commissioner JaNice Van Ness said, "I thank you for your improved plan. I think it speaks to raising the bar in Rockdale County."
Commissioner Oz Nesbitt and Chairman Richard Oden commended Wilson's leadership. "This kills two birds with one stone," said Nesbitt. "Now we can move on to focus on bigger things in Rockdale County."
During public comments, Sam Smiley, who is running as a Republican candidate for the Post I Commission seat, said the commissioners should revisit the resolution they had passed previously against the funding of non-profits by the county.
Wilson reported that her office collected $34,502 in 2009, $38,771 in 2010, and $44,000 in 2011 in passport fees, or a total of $117,273 over the three years. She said that she had "paid income taxes" on these fees.
From 1992, when the Clerk of Courts Office began processing passports, to 2008, when previous Clerk of Courts Joanne Caldwell retired, about $433,587 was reportedly collected in passport fees over 16 years.
According to handwritten ledgers, about 73 percent of that total, or approximately $315,040, was withdrawn in 88 checks reportedly written to Caldwell, a practice allowed by law.
At least $65,889 out of those fees was reportedly donated to the county general fund over six years, according to Board of Commission meeting minutes.
Caldwell previously declined to comment on passport fees but later told the News that she was gathering records and would prefer to comment once the records were available. She clarified that up until 2001, the fees were donated to the county and kept in an account she managed.