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Passport fee allocation questioned
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The issue of passport fees became a hot topic at the Board of Commissioners Tuesday after the Clerk of Courts proposed splitting the fees with the county and with herself.

In her presentation, Clerk of Superior Court Ruth Wilson proposed keeping half the fees as personal income - a practice allowed by a loophole in Georgia law, having a quarter go to the county’s general fund and a quarter go to the Clerk’s Office for miscellaneous equipment, supplies, and rewards and recognition programs.

In 2011, about $44,000 was collected in passport fees, said Wilson.

“One of the reasons I came forward with this proposal was to establish transparency so in the future it’ll be very easy for the public to know how much money was involved and how it’s being handled,” she said.

Commissioner JaNice Van Ness asked Wilson why all the fees wouldn’t be donated to the county.

“Because we’re doing extra work on behalf of the public,” said Wilson. “For extra work, we expect extra money.”

“But you are the one that personally gets it,” said Van Ness.

Van Ness pointed out it was taxpayer dollars that funded the salaries of the staff that performed the processing duties and that the staff of 30 had an average salary of $31,000. Wilson reportedly made a salary of about $86,000 in 2011.

Van Ness also pointed out that money could have been used during recent tight budgets including last year when additional funds were needed to expand the Board of Equalization.

Wilson replied, “Let’s be careful not to mix budgeted taxpayer dollars with this extra federal money. You cannot budget this money. You don’t know when it’s coming in or if it’s coming in."

Commissioner Oz Nesbitt asked what had been the practice before.

“It’s my understanding that the past practice was for the fees to be retained as personal income, but it’s difficult for me to document this,” Wilson said.

Prior to 2009 when she opened an account, passport fees were not kept in a separate account, Wilson said.

“That process (of processing passports) has been in place since 1992. There was not a separate passport account established so you could easily track how much money was coming in.”

The previous Clerk of Courts Joanne Caldwell was not available for comment by Tuesday evening.

A search of BOC minutes from 2001 to 2008 revealed Caldwell donated passport fees to the county at least on two occasions - $19,836 in 2001 and $16,786 in 2002.

However, several former and current county staffers recalled the fees were often donated except for the last several years of Caldwell’s administration. Caldwell was Clerk of Courts from 1985 to 2008.

A $25 processing fee, in addition to the cost of the passport, is collected by the agency receiving the passport application. In many places, that function is performed at the post office, which keeps the fees for the post office. In Rockdale County, the Clerk of Superior Courts office is the only agency that processes passports. According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, 94 of the 159 counties process passports through the Probate court or Clerk of Courts office.

Wilson, who is running for re-election for a second term, included in her presentation to the BOC a copy of the Feb. 22 AJC article that looked at the practice of court clerks keeping passport fees.

Former county legal affairs manager Holly Bowie, who is running as a Republican candidate for Clerk of Courts, initiated Open Records requests earlier this year for financial documents relating to passport fees.

Bowie attended the BOC meeting and handed out a written statement afterwards which stated, “When I submitted the request for general financial records on February 16, 2012, I had no idea the conclusion would be that an elected official, who is a steward of public funds, chose to give herself an average $36,500 bonus each year for the past three years instead of lessening the burden on the taxpayers of Rockdale County.”

Wilson was asked to return for further discussion at a Board of Commissioners work session. The BOC will take a two-week recess during the first half of April.