Passport fees were largely taken as personal income but also regularly donated to the county in the past practice of the Clerk of Courts, according to handwritten ledgers kept by the former Clerk and made available by the current Clerk.
About $433,587 was reportedly collected in passport fees over 16 years from 1992, when the Rockdale County Clerk of Courts office started processing passports, until 2008, when longtime Clerk of Courts Joanne Caldwell retired.
About 73 percent of that total, or approximately $315,040, was withdrawn in 88 checks reportedly written to Caldwell, a practice allowed by law.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 declined to comment about passport fees besides reiterating that the Clerk of Courts is legally allowed to keep and use the passport fees.
She said she had spent passport fee funds on office furniture and supplies donated to the county for many years during her time as Clerk of Courts.*
The state law originated as a way to pay constitutional officers at a time when professional salaries were not the norm.
However, the current Clerk of Courts Ruth Wilson receives an annual salary of about $90,000.
On March 27, Wilson proposed to the Board of Commissioners to donate 25 percent of the passport fees to the county general fund, 25 percent to the Clerk’s office, and 50 percent to herself.
Wilson reported that her office collected $34,502 in 2009, $38,771 in 2010, and $44,000 in 2011 in passport fees.
The ledgers record checks made for items such as office supplies, computers, furniture, staff holiday meals and decorations as well as donations to local civic clubs and booster organizations.
The ledgers also record at least eight instances from 1993 to 1999, totaling $8,262, where income tax accrued from receiving these funds as personal income was paid from passport fee funds.
After 2004, nearly all of the passport fees were withdrawn in checks to Caldwell.
According to County Clerk Jennifer Rutledge, BOC meeting minutes captured about $65,889 in six donation presentations by Caldwell for the county general fund:
$4,499 on Oct. 25, 1994
$6,805 on April 11, 1995
$885.67 on Feb. 27, 1996
$17,077 on May 9, 2000
$19,836.28 on Mar. 27, 2001
$16,786 on May 28, 2002
However, according to county spokesperson Tonya Parker, records of checks being received by the county in those years are not available, since it is past the five year document retention schedule.
An adult passport book and card costs $140, plus a $25 “execution fee” that, according to Georgia law, the administering body is allowed to keep as personal income.
At least 94 of 159 Georgia counties that responded to an Association of County Commissioners of Georgia survey have courts or Clerks of Courts that administer passports. Many of the surrounding counties, including Newton, Henry, Walton, and DeKalb, have courts or clerks of courts that process passports. In many counties the post office or other locations also process passports. In Rockdale, the Clerk of Courts office is the only place to do so.
*Editor's Note (4/15/12): Caldwell previously declined to comment on passport fees but later told the News after publication of this article 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.