Wednesday, August 9, 2017

YOUR TAX DOLLARS -

Fulton tax commissioner to collect fee from S. Fulton

More than one county commissioner called the agreement “repugnant” but still voted to allow Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand to earn a $1-per-parcel fee for collecting taxes in the new city of South Fulton.

Ferdinand, the highest-paid elected official in the state, had refused last month to negotiate on the fee, which is allowed under state law. He earned about $390,000 last year, a total that included $210,281 in $1 fees for collecting taxes in Johns Creek, Sandy Springs and Atlanta. South Fulton has 40,596 taxable parcels, according to the county tax assessor’s office.

Several Fulton County Commissioners were opposed to the fee, but voted in favor of it after a parade of people — including South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards; Rep. Roger Bruce, D-South Fulton; and members of the City Council — urged them to allow Ferdinand to collect taxes.

Only one commissioner, Liz Hausmann, voted against the agreement.
Commissioner Emma Darnell said she didn’t think it was fair that anyone earn that much money for collecting taxes — and suggested that Ferdinand might consider donating the additional $40,000 he will earn. Fulton County Vice Chairman Bob Ellis said the fact that county commissioners have to approve the agreement between Ferdinand and the city is a “stupid construct.” He said he wished South Fulton had a better agreement.

“My constituents find this morally repugnant, and every time there’s a news article about that, they’re outraged,” Commissioner Lee Morris said. “It is a problem for folks, and I’m going to hear from my constituents about this vote.”

Earlier this year, the Georgia General Assembly eliminated a 50-cent fee that also went to the tax commissioner every time he sold a tax lien. Between 2011 and 2015, Ferdinand collected more than $200,000 as a result of that fee. He continued to collect it through July 1, the effective date of the new law.

Bruce said if commissioners did not approve the agreement, the city would not be able to collect the taxes it needs to pay back Fulton County for its services. Joe Carn, a College Park city councilman, said he came to support his neighbors because “if one city is struggling, it’s going to affect the other cities.”

Edwards told commissioners he wanted them to treat the new city the same as they had Johns Creek and Sandy Springs, which also use — and pay for — Ferdinand’s services.

“Our council unanimously approved Dr. Arthur Ferdinand to collect our taxes knowing we would have to pay him for our taxes,” Edwards said. “I’m willing to pay that $1 to get that kind of person in our midst.”

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7/20/17  -  FULTON COUNTY

South Fulton mayor upset over tax fee decision

Commission’s denial of tax collection fees goes against Ga. law.

By Arielle Kass akass@ajc.com


Bill Edwards
HENRY TAYLOR /HENRY.TAYLOR@AJC.COM

Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand.
BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Bill Edwards, mayor of the new city of South Fulton, just wants to give Arthur Ferdinand some of his city’s money.
  Ferdinand, the Fulton County tax commissioner, is willing to take it.  Fulton County commissioners are standing in the way.
“I’m so mad, I don’t know what to do,” Edwards said, hours after commissioners voted Wednesday not to allow a contract between Ferdinand and the city to collect the city’s taxes. That agreement would have enhanced Ferdinand’s salary by $1 for every parcel he collected taxes on. There are 40,596 taxable parcels in the city of South Fulton.
  Ferdinand, who is the highest-paid elected official in the state, collects a similar per-parcel fee in the three other Fulton cities where he collects taxes: Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs. Altogether, the fees netted him an additional $210,281 last year. His total salary was about $390,000.
State law allows the fees from cities that have contracts with their county’s tax commissioners. It says the tax commissioner can accept additional compensation for taking on more duties — like city tax collection. But the money has to pass through the county.
And Fulton isn’t on board.
“I think it’s wrong the money would go to his salary vs. going to the department that’s actually doing the work,” Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said. “It’s troublesome.”
  A 2007 law tried to curb the practice, but existing contracts were grandfathered in. The new South Fulton contract is subject to the fee only if Fulton agrees to it. Edwards doesn’t think that’s fair.
“I was floored today that they didn’t pass this thing,” he said on Wednesday. “It’s our call. If we want the man to do our taxes, what have you got to do with it?”  ‘I was floored today that they didn’t pass this thing. It’s our call. If we want (Arthur Ferdinand) to do our taxes, what have you got to do with it?’
Bill Edwards, Mayor of the new city of South Fulton
  Kevin Payne, the Floyd County tax commissioner and president of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, said it’s not uncommon for tax commissioners to have contracts that pay them $1 per parcel for their work. His does. So does Irvin Johnson’s in DeKalb County. Gwinnett’s tax commissioner collects for cities but does not collect the fee. Cobb does not collect tax revenue for cities.
In areas where the fee exists, it’s a remnant of a time when constitutional officers made their income through fees and fines.  “It’s a fairly common practice,” Payne said of the fee.
The high number of taxable parcels in Fulton County puts a spotlight on Ferdinand.
  The fee may add to the cost of tax collection, but Payne said it’s far less than it would cost for each city to collect taxes on its own, and the process is more efficient.
Jeff Breslau, a Johns Creek spokesman, said last week that the city uses Ferdinand to keep residents from getting two tax bills. Jenna Garland, an Atlanta spokeswoman, said the city partnered with Ferdinand in 2002 after trying to collect on its own. Before then, she said, the collection rate fell below 90 percent. And the fees for collection are less than it would cost to reestablish that office.
  Ferdinand could not be reached for comment on Friday. But he said Wednesday that he was not willing to negotiate the $1 per parcel fee.
“I am open to the law, and the law says I will be compensated,” he said.
Hausmann said she hopes Ferdinand will reevaluate his position. The matter will again come before the board Aug. 2.
  In South Fulton, Edwards is worried that he’ll have to contract with someone else if commissioners don’t approve the agreement. Right now, no taxes are being collected in the city.  “Dr. Ferdinand ain’t doing nothing illegal, he’s doing something you don’t like,” said Edwards, a former Fulton County commissioner. “He takes advantage of it....The state of Georgia thinks it’s fine.”

7/20/17

Fulton tax commissioner’s fees in dispute, will delay tax collection


  
Posted: 4:55 p.m. Wednesday, July 19, 2017


Tax collection in the new city of South Fulton is in limbo after Fulton county commissioners balked at an agreement that would pay Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand an additional $1 per parcel for doing the work.
Ferdinand, who is the highest-paid elected official in the state in part because of such fees, said Wednesday that he would not negotiate a deal that would deny him the money that state law says he can collect.
“I am open to the law, and the law says I will be compensated,” he said.
State law allows Ferdinand and other tax commissioners to collect the fees as part of their salary. Dan Ray, the executive director for the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, said previously that tax commissioners deserve high compensation because they handle so much public money.
Ferdinand earned about $390,000 last year, a total that included $210,281 in $1 fees for collecting taxes in Johns Creek, Sandy Springs and Atlanta. Atlanta paid him the largest amount, $152,865.
South Fulton has 40,596 taxable parcels, according to the county tax assessor’s office.
Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann said she could not support an agreement that allowed Ferdinand to add an additional $40,000 to his salary, calling it problematic. Money should go to the county, and not to individuals, she said.
“The issue is not the fee, the issue is where the fee goes,” Hausmann said. “I wish you were more willing to look at a different structure.”
County commissioners have to approve the agreement for Ferdinand to collect taxes for South Fulton, a new city that incorporated this spring. They decided Wednesday to delay a vote on the agreement until August in the hopes of negotiating another agreement. In the meantime, county attorney Patrise Perkins-Hooker said, taxes would not be collected on South Fulton’s behalf.
“I just hope we don’t jeopardize the new city with this decision,” Fulton County Commission Chairman John Eaves said. “…We’ve got to figure something out. I don’t want 100,000 residents of the new city to be a victim of an ideological tug of war.”
South Fulton Mayor Bill Edwards did not return several phone calls seeking comment about the fee. Because the law allows the county tax commissioner to collect fees only from cities, Ferdinand did not charge any additional money to the area when it was part of unincorporated Fulton County.
In Johns Creek, spokesman Jeff Breslau said the city paid Ferdinand $26,670 in $1 fees last year. The city elects to use Ferdinand’s services for efficiency’s sake, Breslau said, to keep residents from getting multiple tax bills.
Ferdinand is not the only tax commissioner to collect the fee. In DeKalb County, Tax Commissioner Irvin Johnson collected $113,000 in fees from 10 cities last year for a total salary of $285,781. Tax commissioners in Gwinnett and Cobb counties don’t receive salary supplements from cities.
Earlier this year, the Georgia General Assembly passed a law that curtailed some other fees Ferdinand was collecting. It eliminated a 50-cent fee that also went to the tax commissioner every time he sold a tax lien. Between 2011 and 2015, Ferdinand collected more than $200,000 as a result of that fee. He continued to collect it through July 1, the effective date of the new law.
Ferdinand earlier this year had proposed a different agreement that distributed the South Fulton payment among his staff. Members of South Fulton’s city council approved that agreement in May, though county commissioners were opposed to it.
Hausmann, the county commissioner, said her opposition was nothing personal. Ferdinand does “a great job collecting taxes,” she said, but her north Fulton constituents are opposed to the $1 fee.
“Other people like the job I do also, and they pay for it,” Ferdinand said.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017


PROPERTY TAX

Tax collectors’ fees questioned

DeKalb, Fulton officials’ salaries inflated by supplemental charges.

DeKalb County Tax Commissioner Irvin Johnson
Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand
DeKalb County Tax Commissioner Irvin Johnson’s pay reached $285,781 last year, making him the second-highest-paid elected official in Georgia. DeKalb commissioners say his supplemental pay from cities should be reviewed.CONTRIBUTED BY DEKALB TAX COMMISSIONERS

When Irvin Johnson took over as tax collector in DeKalb County last year, he became Georgia’s second-highest-paid elected official.

His compensation of $285,781, inflated by fees charged to 10 cities for preparing their residents’ property tax bills, is more than that received by state Supreme Court justices ($171,404), Gov. Nathan Deal ($139,339) and Attorney General Chris Carr ($139,169).

Among the state’s elected officials, Johnson’s pay trails only Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, who earned about $390,000 last year — in large part because of similar direct payments from the county’s cities.

Though the arrangement isn’t new, DeKalb commissioners say it’s unusual enough to warrant another look now that the county has a new tax commissioner.

“We should review the contracts,” said Kathie Gannon, the DeKalb Board of Commissioners’ presiding officer. “The cost of the service is what we need to charge. It’s a new time and a new day.”

When DeKalb Tax Commissioner Claudia Lawson took office 10 years ago, she negotiated her fees for generating tax bills for city residents. She retired Dec. 31, 2015.

Johnson has been receiving the same fees since he took office in January 2016, though Lawson’s name is still on the contracts with the cities. Every city in DeKalb except Decatur, which has its own tax office, relies on the county for property tax administration.

On top of Johnson’s $173,000 base salary, he receives nearly $113,000 in payments from cities. That’s $2 per parcel except in the county’s three largest cities, which pay a $25,000 flat rate.

The contracts were negotiated between the cities and the county, and they automatically renew each year unless either party terminates the agreement.

Commissioner Greg Adams agreed that the board should revisit the issue.
“It’s something we would take a look into and see how it should be properly disbursed,” Adams said.

Johnson declined to comment. His staff members referred to his statements before last year’s election, when Johnson won a four-year term.

“The pay tells you it’s a little more than an administrative job,” Johnson said in a May 2016 interview. “If we don’t follow the law in terms of collecting and distributing money, it’s a serious legal matter. Somebody could go to jail.”

While some other tax commissioners in Georgia collect fees from cities for handling their taxes, not all do. Tax commissioners in Gwinnett and Cobb counties don’t receive salary supplements from cities.

In Gwinnett, eight cities contracted with the county to pay $100,407 this year for tax and fee collections, but that money goes to the county, not the tax commissioner, for the cost of printing bills, postage, accounting and customer service. In Cobb, cities send out their own tax bills, so no payments are made to the county.

Cities save money by working with county tax offices rather than setting up their own municipal tax departments, said Dan Ray, executive director for the Georgia Association of Tax Officials.

Tax commissioners deserve compensation for the job of handling so much of the public’s money — more than $2 billion a year in DeKalb and Fulton combined, Ray said.

“That’s a boatload of money, and that’s a responsibility and liability that somebody should be compensated for,” Ray said. “I’m going to argue that they’re worth it. They’re taking on a huge responsibility.”

Ray said a tax commissioner could face criminal charges if public money went missing from his office.

“It’s almost like a salary,” said Jackson County Tax Commissioner Candace Taylor, who receives $7,000 a year from four cities for their tax bills and then gives about $2,700 of that amount to her nine-person staff as a bonus. “Cities rely on our knowledge to prepare their tax bills. They have the option to do it themselves if they choose to.”
State legislators have tried to crack down on side payments to tax commissioners, with limited success.

The Georgia General Assembly passed a bill this year that eliminates a 50-cent fee that Ferdinand collected every time he sold a tax lien. That fee added up to between $22,000 to $31,000 extra per year to Ferdinand.

He still receives $1-per-parcel payments from the cities of Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek to do their property tax bills, for a total of $210,281 last year. Atlanta paid him the largest amount: $152,865.

Ferdinand didn’t respond to emailed questions.

The city of Atlanta pays much more than other cities to both Fulton and DeKalb’s tax offices. The city pays DeKalb a total of $100,000, with $25,000 of that amount going to Johnson. That’s an expense to Atlanta taxpayers of $7 for each of the city’s 14,148 parcels in DeKalb. No other city in the county pays more than $2.43 per parcel.

Atlanta paid nearly $1.9 million to Ferdinand and Fulton’s tax office last fiscal year, according to a city spokeswoman. That comes to $12.40 per parcel.

Atlanta Councilwoman Felicia Moore said state action might be needed to rein in the city’s spending on tax billing and collection.

“If there is an effort or will to change that, the state law really needs to be changed so tax commissioners can’t charge it,” Moore said. “As long as the law allows it to occur, I suspect it will.”

The payments to the tax commissioner are negotiated by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office and approved by the City Council.

A spokeswoman for Reed declined to comment when asked whether Atlanta taxpayers are getting a good deal.


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7/25/15

Ethically challenged Fulton Tax Commissioner Ferdinand has been absent from the news recently, now he is back with the below long running civil suit.  It is said that if you look up 'crook' in a dictionary they have a photo of Ferdinand next to the entry.  Below is the latest AJC report on this guy.

And one final matter, the AJC and Ferdinand have had a long running war with Ferdinand slapping a lien on any Cox property in Fulton if they miss paying a tax by even a day (the AJC is a Cox newspaper) and the AJC runs articles on Ferdinand whenever they find an opportunity to take a shot at him.  A good summary is that Ferdinand is a first class sleezeball and deserves all the bad press he gets.

YOUR TAX DOLLARS
Lawsuit has cost Fulton $137K
Tax commissioner accused of abuse of power; deal is likely.
By David Wickert dwickert@ajc.com 
   A lawsuit accusing Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand of abuse of power has cost Fulton County nearly $137,000, and the final price tag might be higher.
   Fulton officials say taxpayers have paid $136,732 through April 30 to cover Ferdinand’s legal bills in a lawsuit brought by County Commissioner Liz Hausmann. She says the tax commissioner revoked the registration for her 2004 Jeep as an act of political payback. Ferdinand denies the claim.
   Now court records show settlement talks are under way. If those talks result in a cash settlement for Hausmann, taxpayers would pay the bill.
   Attorneys for both elected officials declined to comment on a possible settlement. But court records indicate the Fulton Board of Commissioners may discuss a settlement in a closed session on Aug. 5.
   Some people say Ferdinand
   – not taxpayers – should pay.
   “The taxpayers of Fulton County are ultimately the ones that are paying for these political power plays and I think it hurts them,” said Ryan Split-log, assistant director of Common Cause Georgia.
   The lawsuit pits two top elected officials in Georgia’s largest county against each other.
   Ferdinand revoked the registration of Hausmann’s Jeep in 2013. He also sent a memo to her fellow commissioners and the county attorney, questioning whether she lived in the north Fulton district she represents.
   Hausmann, a Johns Creek resident, was separated from her husband and living with her sister at the time. She said she had always lived in the district and argues that Ferdinand revoked the registration because she had questioned his use of a county take-home vehicle.
   Ferdinand initially said he received a tip that Hausmann did not live in her district and revoked the registration because she could not provide adequate proof of an address. Under oath during a deposition, he admitted there was no tipster. He eventually allowed Hausmann to register the vehicle after she provided her voter registration as proof of residence.
   The litigation has dragged on for more than two years. Last year, a Fulton County Superior Court judge rejected Ferdinand’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. Ferdinand appealed that decision, but the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court also refused to dismiss Hausmann’s claims.
   The case now is set for trial Aug. 3, but Hausmann has requested a postponement. She cited the settlement talks and said her daughter – who renewed Hausmann’s vehicle registration and is expected to testify – will be out of town.
   Ferdinand’s attorney, Randy Turner, said he supports the postponement.
   All the while, Fulton taxpayers have been paying Ferdinand’s legal bills because he’s a county employee. Hausmann told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she “never thought taxpayers should bear the burden” of Ferdinand’s legal costs. She declined to discuss a possible settlement except to say she will not participate in any commission decision on the matter.
   Channel 2 Action News reporter Mike Petchenik contributed to this report.

The lawsuit against Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand pits two top elected officials.


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9/23/14
Fulton issues back on agenda
9/23/14 Atlanta Journal Constitution

Legislative delegation discusses tax breaks, cityhood, tax liens.

By David Wickert dwickert@ajc.com 
   Big tax breaks for homeowners, a new city in south Fulton County and curbs on the Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand’s ability to profit from tax liens will be back on the General Assembly’s agenda in 2015.
   The Fulton County legislative delegation discussed those and other measures Monday — an indication that the upcoming legislative session may be chock full of controversy for Georgia’s largest county.
   The session is still months away, and it’s too early to know for sure what bills will be introduced. But it’s clear Republicans in the General Assembly plan to renew their push to remake Fulton County government to their liking.
   On Monday the local delegation discussed its 2015 priorities for Fulton County, its 
schools and cities. Some of the Republicans who control the delegation said their priorities include raising Fulton’s property tax homestead exemption.
   A proposal to double the exemption to $60,000 passed the House of Representatives in 2013 but died in the Senate earlier this year. That would have meant the owner of a $150,000 home would pay no county property taxes, while other homeowners would have received big discounts.
   Supporters said the move is needed to force Fulton County to cut a budget they believe is bloated.
   An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last fall showed Fulton spends far more than neighboring counties on some services. But the AJC found Fulton’s spending is often in line with or less than comparable large urban counties across the country.
   Critics said doubling the homestead exemption would cut tens of millions of dollars for services like libraries, senior programs and Grady Memorial Hospital. In a recent interview 
, County Commission Chairman John Eaves said he hopes lawmakers won’t revive the homestead exemption proposal.
   “To me, this divisive effort to try to restrict the spending and revenue of county government is just counterproductive,” Eaves said.
   Some Republicans also want to prohibit the county tax commissioner from profiting when people are late on their taxes. Last year an AJC investigation found that Ferdinand personally collects 50 cents each time his office sells a tax debt to a private company or a property owner pays off a lien — boosting his salary by up to $31,000 annually. 
The practice is permitted under an obscure state law. A bill to end the practice died in the Senate this year.
   Ferdinand did not respond to a request for comment.
   Democrats also have some priorities. Rep. Roger Bruce, D-Atlanta, plans to introduce a bill to allow residents of south Fulton County to vote on forming a city. South Fulton, home to about 90,000 residents, is the 
only part of Fulton County that remains unincorporated. A similar bill passed the House earlier this year but didn’t get a vote on the Senate floor.
   A group of Atlanta-Fulton County Public Library System supporters also asked lawmakers to consider strengthening the authority of the library board of trustees. Some members complain the County Commission is micromanaging the library system. They want the authority to appoint the library director and to determine library hours, among other things.
   Taken together, the proposals suggest the upcoming session could be as significant for the future of Fulton County as was the 2013 session, when Republicans passed 10 bills affecting county operations. Among other things, they redrew County Commission districts to give north Fulton more representation, made it easier to fire county employees and prohibited commissioners from raising property tax rates until 2015.
   The battle over that last proposal is still being fought in court. In August the County 
Commission approved a 17 percent property tax increase in defiance of the tax cap. Six Republican lawmakers have filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the tax increase.
   No matter what happens in court, Republicans may try again to grant homeowners tax relief. Rep. Jan Jones, R-Milton, Monday said she’s confident the House will pass the homestead bill again and urged her Senate colleagues to approve it.
   “Had that passed in the Senate [this year] our taxpayers would not be facing a 17 percent increase,” Jones said.
   Democrats and some Republicans have decried efforts to limit the County Commission’s authority over taxes. They say the tax cap and the proposed homestead exemption constitute illegal meddling in local affairs.
   “They want to be the Fulton County Commission,” Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta. “Why should the 236 members of the General Assembly and the governor in effect become the Fulton County Commission?”


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June 21, 2014 from the AJC

Tax chief loses in court
Judge refuses to dismiss abuse-of-authority lawsuit.

By David Wickert dwickert@ajc.com 
   A Fulton County judge has rejected Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand’s request to dismiss a lawsuit that accuses him of abusing his authority.
   In the lawsuit, County Commissioner Liz Hausmann says Ferdinand last year revoked the registration of a vehicle she owned because she questioned his use of a county take-home vehicle. Ferdinand has denied the allegations and said Hausmann had not provided adequate proof of residence to register the vehicle.
   Superior Court Judge Kelly Lee recently ordered the case to mediation. But the mediation failed, and on Thursday Lee rejected Ferdinand’s request to dismiss the lawsuit. Ferdinand’s attorney, Randy Turner, has said he will appeal that decision.

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Note:  This issue has other relevant posts further down the blog.  Put the term 'Hausmann' into the 'search' bar at the top of the blog to bring up these posts.
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 April 7, 2014
FULTON COUNTY
Tax chief changes position in dispute
Commissioner says probe was political payback.
By David Wickert dwickert@ajc.com 

   Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has changed his story on why he investigated the residency of a county commissioner last year and suggested she no longer lived in her district.
   Last May, Ferdinand said a constituent told him that Commissioner Liz Hausmann, a north Fulton Republican, was living in Gwinnett County. He said the tip prompted his office to investigate her residency — an investigation that later led Ferdinand to revoke Hausmann’s vehicle registration.
   But in a deposition in a lawsuit Hausmann filed against him, Ferdinand now says no one told him she was living in Gwinnett County. Instead, he says it was common knowledge that she was getting a divorce and had moved from her Johns Creek home, though he doesn’t remember who told him.
   Hausmann — who says she never lived outside her district — says the tax commissioner’s changing story supports her contention that he revoked her registration as political payback after she questioned his need for a county take-home vehicle.
   “Initially, he indicated there was a tip of some sort. In the deposition, he admitted there was no tip,” Hausmann said in an interview last week. “It shows the whole reason this even started was baseless.”
   Ferdinand, who has denied retaliating against Hausmann, did not respond to requests for comment. In an e-mail, his attorney, Randy Turner, said it doesn’t matter how Ferdinand discovered that Hausmann was no longer living at her oldaddress. He said Hausmann has no valid complaint.
   “The tax commissioner has a legal obligation to ensure that people registering automobiles in Fulton County do so correctly, and this includes Commissioner Hausmann,” Turner said.
   The dueling claims come as Hausmann’s lawsuit against the tax commissioner may be headed toward resolution. Ferdinand has asked Fulton County Superior Court Judge Kelly Lee to dismiss the case, saying the facts don’t support Hausmann’s argument. If the judge permits the case to move forward, a trial is scheduled to begin in June.
   The dispute stems from Hausmann’s efforts to renew the registration of a 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee. She owns the vehicle, though it is driven by her daughter.
   Last April, her daughter renewed the vehicle registration in Hausmann’s name using Hausmann’s longtime Johns Creek address. But Hausmann and her estranged husband had sold the home in 2012, and the address was no longer valid.
   In May, Ferdinand notified Hausmann that it had come to his attention that she had sold her home and would need to provide proof of her current address. That same day, he wrote a memo to interim County Attorney Larry Ramsey and to county commissioners, saying a constituent had questioned Hausmann’s residence, prompting him to look into the matter.
   “The constituent alleged Ms. Hausmann is no longer a resident of the district to which she was elected and currently resides in Gwinnett County,” Ferdinand wrote. He also questioned her “appropriateness to serve the citizens of District 3.”
   But under oath during a January deposition, Ferdinand said no one had told him Hausmann was living in Gwinnett County. Instead, he noted that her daughter had paid for the vehicle registration with a check that had a Gwinnett address.
   At another point during the questioning, Ferdinand said he didn’t remember the identity of the constituent referenced in his memo. When asked who told him Hausmann was getting divorced and had moved, he said it was common knowledge.
   “It was just general discussion around the place,” he said. “I don’t think I had a specific discussion with somebody about that. I don’t get into people’s business that way.”
   Hausmann’s attorney, Josh Belinfante, said Ferdinand’s testimony about the unnamed constituent “suggests he did this on his own.”
   “It speaks to what were his motivations at the time he wrote this memorandum to the members of the Fulton County Commission,” Belinfante said.
   Ferdinand asked Hausmann to provide proof of her current address. She provided several documents, including her sister’s lease and utility bills and a sworn statement from her sister and brother-in-law. But Ferdinand rejected them as inadequate and revoked her registration .
   He later accepted Hausmann’s voter registration as evidence of her address and reinstated the Jeep’s registration.
   In her own deposition and in interviews, Hausmann said she moved in with her sister after separating from her husband but never lived outside her commission district. She admitted she failed to update her address after moving, saying she was distracted by the divorce and the death of her father. She said her daughter paid for the registration using a check with her father’s Gwinnett address.
   “It could have easily been solved with a phone call,” Hausmann said last week. “The whole process was arbitrary.”
   In the lawsuit, Hausmann said Ferdinand’s actions were payback for criticisms she’s leveled against him. Among other things, she said the tax commissioner violated her due process and free speech rights and abused his authority by retaliating against her. She is seeking unspecified damages and attorney’s fees.
   In court documents, Ferdinand says he complied with state law throughout the process of verifying Hausmann’s residency.
   “How Dr. Ferdinand came to discover that Commissioner Hausmann had registered her car to an address that she no longer owned and hadn’t lived at for eight months is really not important to this issue of whether she has a legal claim against him,” said Turner, the tax commissioner’s attorney. “She does not.”



Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand (center) has been sued by Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann over his contention that she was living outside the county. In a deposition, he has given a different version of how he obtained information about her residency.   KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM 




DIGGING DEEPER








   The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered an array of issues involving the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office. Much of tax chief Arthur Ferdinand’s pay comes from a fee he pockets, the $1 per parcel he charges to Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs for adding their city tax bills to county tax bills. Ferdinand, the state’s highest-paid elected official, has been personally collecting 50 cents for every tax lien his office has settled or sold off, the AJC found. Today’s story shows Ferdinand has changed his account of why he investigated the residency of County Commissioner Liz Hausmann last year.


Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann has filed a lawsuit against Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, claiming that his questions about her residency were political payback.    HYOSUB SHIN / AJC 2012




Arthur Ferdinand has asked Superior Court Judge Kelly Lee to dismiss Commissioner Hausmann’s suit against him. If Lee permits the suit to move forward, a trial is scheduled for June. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM 

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  3/24/14
Tax chief gets to keep profits

Bill to rein in Fulton’s Ferdinand dies again in legislative session.

By David Wickert dwickert@ajc.com 
   Another year and more complaints about Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand didn’t make much difference in the General Assembly, where legislation to change the way he handles late property tax bills once again died.
   House Bill 819 would have stopped Ferdinand from personally profiting when people are late on their taxes. It also would have required tax commissioners across Georgia to make an extra effort to track down property owners before selling their tax debts to private bill collectors.
   But HB 819 was one of a handful of bills on the Senate calendar last week that didn’t even get a vote before the Senate adjourned Thursday.
   Two of the bill’s Republican sponsors blamed their colleagues in the Senate for its demise.
   “We’ve got one of the most scurrilous politicians in Georgia, a Democrat, right here, and Republicans are protecting him,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, a co-sponsor of HB 819.
   State Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Alpharetta, said there was no attempt to protect the tax commissioner.
   “Last year there were a slew of bills that didn’t get called up,” Beach said. “That’s just the 40th day (of the legislative session).”
   Ferdinand collects hundreds of millions of dollars in property taxes annually for Fulton County schools and local governments. A series of Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations in recent years has highlighted questionable practices in his office. Among them:
   › Ferdinand’s quick sale of delinquent tax bills to private companies
   — before the county can collect a 10 percent penalty — has given as much as $20 million in potential profits to Vesta Holdings, the biggest lien buyer. That’s money the county could have collected.
   › Some private investors have used tax liens to circumvent legal safeguards and snatch homes away from owners who got behind on their tax bills. Sometimes the companies acquired the homes for a fraction of what they’re worth.
   › Most recently the newspaper found that Ferdinand, under an obscure state law, has been personally collecting 50 cents each time his office sells a tax debt to a private company or a property owner pays off a lien. That’s allowed him to boost his salary by up to $31,000 annually to about $383,000. Ferdinand may be the only tax commissioner in the state who collects the fee.
   Ferdinand did not respond to a request for comment. In the past he has defended his practices as perfectly legal. He has said he’s elected to optimize tax collections, and people wouldn’t get in trouble if they paid their bills on time. He’s said some of his critics — including Willard — have failed to pay their taxes on time.
   Critics say the 50-cent fee gives Ferdinand an incentive to sell liens to private collection firms. They say he’s too quick to sell the debts, sometimes placing in financial jeopardy property owners who are unaware their taxes are late.
   In response to such concerns, some state lawmakers have made several failed attempts in recent years to curtail the sale of tax liens. They’ve also tried other ways to shake up Ferdinand’s office.
   Last year they introduced House Bill 346, which would have made the Fulton tax commissioner an appointed — rather than elected — position. The bill passed the House last year, but was tabled by the Senate this year and is now dead.
   This year Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, sponsored HB 819. In addition to eliminating the 50-cent fee, it would have required tax commissioners to take additional steps to track down property owners who are delinquent on their taxes; for example, by doing Internet searches, using people-finder databases to track down current addresses or simply checking the telephone book.
   Martin said the measures would protect ordinary people who fall behind on their taxes but can pay if given some time.
   “The big companies, the people that own the office buildings downtown, they pay people to make sure the taxes get paid,” Martin said. “The people I’m concerned with are the people that are in a (poor) health situation or just a tight budget situation, paying the taxes a few months late.”
   Some tax commissioners worried about the additional cost and time involved in the measures the bill required. Gwinnett Tax Commissioner Richard Steele said he typically has up to 35,000 delinquent accounts.
   “Certainly we’re not going to sit here and flip through a phone book to look for 35,000 people,” Steele said.
   The bill was amended to limit the extent of the extra searches. But Steele remained leery of a bill he said could force other taxpayers to pick up the tab for the extra work.
   “I understand they want to make sure people are made aware of ” late tax bills, he said. “But there’s only so much I can do before I’m dipping into the pocket of other taxpayers.”
   HB 819 cleared the House by a vote of 173-1. An amended version passed a Senate committee on March 13. But while it was on the calendar for a full Senate vote on Tuesday and Thursday last week, it never came up for a vote.
   Beach said he supported the bill. Though some of his House colleagues are angry, he said there was nothing sinister about it not getting a vote on the session’s last day, with its packed agenda and strict deadline.
   “That’s just the way things happen down there,” he said.        “Every year, bills don’t make it.”

Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand



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March 4, 2014 - The AJC Reports in Today's edition:
METRO ATLANTA
Measure targets fee collected by tax chief
   
Legislation to stop Fulton County’s tax collector from personally profiting off tax debts moved from the House to the Senate on Monday. House Bill 819 passed 173-1.
   
An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year found that Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has been using an old law to collect 50 cents every time he sells a tax lien to a private collector or a property owner pays off a lien on his own — amounting to tens of thousands of dollars per year. The practice, initially done without the County Commission’s knowledge, has boosted Ferdinand’s annual pay to about $383,000 — by far the highest compensation for any elected official in Georgia.
  
 “It’s paying someone for not doing their job,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Chuck Martin, RAlpharetta.
   
The bill would also require tax commissioners to try to find a taxpayer through Internet searches and people-finder databases, among other records, to make sure he is notified before the county sells a lien against his property.
   By JOHNNY EDWARDS, AJC Reporter

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March 1, 2014 - AJC AT THE GOLD DOME
Bill to protect homeowners stalls in House
Fulton County tax chief’s lien policy called a major conflict of interest.

By Johnny Edwards jredwards@ajc.com 


  Legislation to protect homeowners and stop Fulton County’s tax chief from profiting off their debts could go belly up this session, just as similar proposals have done in past years.
   
House Bill 819 seeks to keep bill collectors from profiting off late taxes that property owners may not know they owe. It also would keep Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand from pocketing 50 cents every time he sells a delinquent tax bill or a taxpayer settles a lien.


   That fee has boosted his pay by tens of thousands of dollars per year in what critics call a major conflict of interest.
   
But the bill has already been weakened as a result of heavy lobbying by Vesta Holdings, whose network of companies buys most of Fulton’s tax liens.    And with crossover day looming Monday — the deadline for a bill to pass from one chamber of the state Legislature to the other — the measure hasn’t been approved and isn’t scheduled for a floor debate.
  
 The bill’s backers, mostly north Fulton Republicans, said they are confident they can move it on to the Senate and make revisions later. Even after crossover day, lawmakers can maneuver and horse trade to get language added to other bills.

   “The path taken by a bill from beginning to end has many turns in it,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who has tried repeatedly to curb Ferdinand’s practices and beef up taxpayers’ rights.
  
 Provisions in HB 819 were proposed to end practices exposed in several investigations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  
 One investigation last year found that Ferdinand is apparently the only Georgia tax commissioner using an old state law to personally collect 50 cents every time a tax lien gets paid. As a result, the state’s highest-paid elected official has been pocketing roughly $22,000 to $31,000 extra per year, boosting his pay to about $383,000.
  
 Ferdinand did not respond to a request for comment about this story.
 
  In its original form, HB 819 also would have prevented Vesta and other companies from turning a quick 10-percent profit when a tax bill is 90 days late.



   Last year, the AJC discovered that Ferdinand’s quick sales of delinquent bills — before the penalty kicked in — resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in potential county revenue from late fees. Over an 11-year period, the county handed as much as $20 million in potential profits to Vesta, with a corresponding $20 million potential loss to taxpayers.
 
  In some cases, Ferdinand sold the bills a day or two before the penalty would have applied.
  
 Vesta representatives argued in committee meetings that loss of the 10-percent fees would undermine its profit incentive, causing small bills to go uncollected, forcing the county to foreclose on homeowners and slowing revenue collections for cities, school systems and the county.
  
 The bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, removed that provision, saying changes must be made to how the penalty applies and which governments would be able to keep it.

   “Some of the representatives sitting there were torn,” said Dan Ray, executive director of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, “because they represent some of those cities and school systems.”
  
 A lobbyist for InVesta Services — one of Vesta’s associated companies
   — said lawmakers thought better than to create problems for local governments just to enrich Fulton County with the 10 percent penalty.
   “These local governments only stand to lose waiting on delinquent taxpayers to pay up,” lobbyist John Walraven said in a written statement.
 
  That speaks to another problem with Fulton’s system that HB 819 would address.

   For the past three years, the AJC has reported how residents have nearly lost their homes because of tax bills they claim they never received.
   
If taxpayers don’t know about the debts, the collection firm racks up more interest, and it can eventually auction a home to settle the debt.
 
  The House bill would require tax commissioners to try to find taxpayers through Internet searches and people-finder databases, among other records, before selling a lien.
  
 The current process, if nothing else, creates plenty of ill will toward the county. Condominium owner Robert Lynn said he had to pay InVesta about $500 to get rid of liens. He said he didn’t know he had more to pay after dropping his tax appeal, and he would have appreciated a certified letter telling him.
  
 “My perception is that they relish the opportunity to take advantage of people, through the technical, legal setup the way it is now,” Lynn said. “I think they actually look forward to people like me, and then it’s like, ‘OK. We got one, we got one, we got one.’”
  
 Ferdinand sells more liens than any other commissioner in the state, a practice he has defended as a guaranteed way to boost collections. Other counties that do not sell liens boast similar collection rates, but they take longer to reach them.
 
  The tax chief has said repeatedly that privatized collections don’t harm taxpayers because they owe the same sum in taxes, penalties and interest either way. He has also pointed out that private investors, unlike counties, must wait a year to foreclose.


   However, an AJC investigation found that, through so-called “super liens,” some lien buyers have been able to circumvent legal safeguards to quickly foreclose on homes and pocket the equity.

   Martin, the state lawmaker, said he’s looking for a way that both lien-buyers and local governments and school systems can collect penalty fees.
 
  He also said liens might be better sold through a bid system. Currently, the tax commissioner may sell liens to whomever he wishes, and some investors have complained of favoritism for Vesta.

   “I think open, honest competition for this business, if there’s a business of collecting these fees, is not a bad thing,” Martin said. “We’ve got a little bit of an upside down, inverse business model here. You collect more if you don’t try to collect.”
   Staff Writer Aaron Gould     Sheinin contributed to this article.


AJC watchdog coverage

   The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered an array of issues involving the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office, including its sales of tax debts to private collection firms and tax chief Arthur Ferdinand’s take-home pay.
   House Bill 819 is a direct result of that reporting.
   This year, the AJC revealed how Ferdinand’s quick sales of delinquent tax bills, before the county collected a 10 percent penalty, handed as much as $20 million in potential revenues to Vesta Holdings, the biggest lien buyer, with a corresponding $20 million loss to taxpayers.
   Another investigation revealed he has been earning an extra $22,000 to $31,000 per year by taking 50 cents every time he sells a tax lien to a collector or a taxpayer pays off a lien themselves.
   The AJC also revealed that Ferdinand dipped into his office budget to buy a $39,000 take-home SUV. And it broke the story last year that Ferdinand personally intervened after a tax debt owed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s real estate holding company, Cascade Investors, was sold to Vesta.
   The Tax Commissioner’s Office got the debt transferred back to the county, then later filed documents asking the Superior Court Clerk to remove all liens filed against Cascade from the record. The Fulton County Board of Ethics found no cause to investigate.


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Fulton tax chief: No favors for Reed

Uncashed checks from Atlanta mayor surface after request is made.

Fulton tax chief Arthur Ferdinand leans back in his chair as Tuesday’s ethics board hearing, which started at 10 a.m., stretched into the afternoon. BOB ANDRES / AJC

By Johnny Edwards jredwards@ajc.com 

   Fulton County’s tax chief won’t face an ethics investigation for allegedly giving special treatment to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed on late taxes, thanks in part to uncashed cashier’s checks the tax commissioner produced for the first time Tuesday.

   It was yet another shift in the official story of why Reed owed tens of thousands of dollars in delinquent property taxes soon after taking office. For the first time, Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand offered a public explanation as to why Reed received drastically different treatment than ordinary taxpayers.

   The latest: Reed sent in a cashier’s check for $21,476 in taxes that his company owed on a warehouse and a vacant lot, but the tax office never cashed it. The same happened with another check for $2,200, but it is unclear what that check was for.

   Ferdinand handed copies of the two checks to the county’s Board of Ethics members during a probable-cause hearing Tuesday. The board later voted unanimously not to pursue an investigation of the tax commissioner.

   The checks were a revelation to those following the case: although The Atlanta Journal-Constitution filed open-records requests last year concerning Reed’s property taxes, the records supplied to the newspaper did not contain copies of the checks. As he left Tuesday’s hearing, Ferdinand ignored questions from an AJC reporter about the checks.

   The larger check, Ferdinand told the ethics board, shows that Reed tried to pay his taxes on time in October 2009.

   “In those situations, we give the taxpayers the benefit of the doubt,” Ferdinand told the board. “Elected officials get the same treatment if they walk into my office.”

   Typically, Fulton taxpayers who fail to pay all or part of their bills have liens slapped on their properties within months. The county may sell the liens to investors, who then collect interest and penalties and may auction properties to settle accounts.

   When taxpayers have complained that they weren’t properly notified, as Reed’s attorney did, Ferdinand’s policy has been to tell them to resolve the matter by satisfying the debt with the firm that bought it.

   Ferdinand on Tuesday offered a half-dozen examples of other taxpayers who he said received the same treatment as Reed, but they were mostly because of errors on the county’s part, such as exemptions not accounted for or ownership changes not documented.

   The taxes in the mayor’s case involved properties held by Cascade Investors, Reed’s real estate partnership.

   “We’re not surprised by the outcome,” Reed spokesman Carlos Campos said. “Mayor Reed exercised his right, as any citizen is able, to appeal an improper tax lien being placed on the partnership’s property. He received no special treatment whatsoever, from anyone.”

   In September, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that, soon after Reed was sworn in as mayor in 2010, Ferdinand personally intervened to buy back an $18,500 tax lien lodged against the warehouse proper ty. Vesta Holdings, a private debt collector, had bought the debt from the county.

   The AJC also found that Reed met personally with Ferdinand in April 2010 to discuss his company’s tax account. According to a letter from Reed’s attorney, Reed was concerned at the time that he wasn’t receiving mailings from the tax office because it was using an old address.

   That address was his old law firm and the firm of his current attorney, Robert Highsmith.
   “It is my understanding that Mayor Reed provided these checks to Commissioner Ferdinand when he initially reached out the commissioner to try to resolve this issue,” Highsmith said Tuesday, referring to the 2010 meeting.

   Highsmith said he found copies of the checks when he retrieved files from storage, after the AJC story ran in September.

   Ferdinand later took steps to nullify all liens ever placed against Cascade Investors, filing papers in Superior Court instructing the clerk to remove them from the record. He cited “address change” issues, as well as “payment processed before lien was filed.”

   Rome, Ga.-based ethics advocate George Anderson, who filed the ethics complaint after reading the AJC article, accused Ferdinand and the board of a cover-up.     “It still doesn’t wash,” he told the board. “It doesn’t pass the smell test.”

   Scrawled on the check copies were handwritten notes saying, “Not cashed per Mayor.” Anderson questioned where the check came from and when Ferdinand’s office received a yellow carbon copy from Reed.

   “I really don’t know,” Tax Administrator Gladys Bradfield said in response.

   The check’s discovery leaves other questions unanswered.

   Ferdinand indicated that his office helped Reed since he may have done nothing wrong, but Reed still wound up paying thousands of dollars in penalties and interest, plus a fee for a bounced check.

   Ferdinand has repeatedly pointed out that debt collectors charge no more in penalties and fees than the county would, so there’s no harm to taxpayers. Yet rather than telling Reed to just pay off Vesta, Ferdinand pulled the lien back in to his office. The tax chief said Tuesday that the only benefit is the taxpayer gets to deal with his office rather than a private company.

   The board didn’t appear concerned that the checks appeared for the first time Tuesday. Asked whether the tax office’s failure to turn them over in past records requests gave him pause, ethics board Chairman Donald Edwards said, “To me, it fits. Everything fits the timeline.”


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   Staff writer Shannon
   McCaffrey contributed to this article.
MY AJC.COM
   Log on to www.MyAJC.com   to learn more about tax chief Arthur Ferdinand’s collection process.


 BOB ANDRES / AJC
IN-DEPTH REPORTING

   The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story last year that Fulton County Tax Commissioner Aurthur Ferdinand appeared to have given special treatment to Mayor Kasim Reed on Reed’s overdue property taxes. Tuesday’s meeting of the Fulton County Ethics Board was a direct result of that report. The news organization long ago established that Ferdinand is the highest-paid elected official in the state. In addition to his regular salary, the commissioner charges three cities in Fulton County $1 per parcel for handling those cities’ tax collections. In addition he relies heavily on selling liens for unpaid taxes to private companies — for which he collects 50 cents per transaction. Some of the lien buyers have then used aggressive tactics against delinquent taxpayers to collect on the debt. Including his salary and the additional fees he collected, Ferdinand’s pay in 2013 totaled $383,000, the AJC found. In large part because of the AJC’s reporting, Fulton legislators have proposed making Ferdinand’s position an appointed rather than elected one, and changing the law so that tax commissioners may not collect fees for selling their constituents’tax liens.


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Monday, January 27, 2014



ETHICS
Reed, tax chief face ethics complaints

Advocate says mayor got special treatment.
   Board to hold hearing on intervention to pay $18,500 tax lien.

By Johnny Edwards jredwards@ajc.com   and Shannon McCaffrey smcaffrey@ajc.com 
   A pair of ethics complaints alleges Kasim Reed received special treatment from Fulton County’s tax chief after an overdue tax bill from the Atlanta mayor’s company was turned over to a collection firm.
   The complaints were filed over the past two weeks against Reed and Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand by George Anderson, a Rome, Ga.-based ethics advocate.

   Anderson was spurred by a September report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailing how, soon after Reed was sworn in as mayor in 2010, Ferdinand personally intervened to buy back an $18,500 tax lien against Reed’s real estate investment company from Vesta Holdings, the private collector that had purchased it.
   The move ran counter to Ferdinand’s aggressive tactics in other cases.
   Typically, Fulton taxpayers who fail to pay all or part of their bills have liens slapped on their properties within months of being delinquent. The liens can get sold to investors, who collect interest and penalties and can auction properties to settle accounts.
   When taxpayers have complained that they weren’t properly notified, as Reed’s attorney did, Ferdinand’s policy has been to tell them to resolve the matter by satisfying the debt with the firm that bought it.
   The AJC discovered that Reed met personally with Ferdinand in April 2010 to discuss his company’s tax account. By taking the lien back from Vesta, Ferdinand spared him political embarrassment, and the tax chief later filed documents instructing the Superior Court Clerk to remove all liens placed against Cascade’s properties from the record.
   In complaints filed with both Atlanta’s and Fulton County’s ethics boards, Anderson accuses Reed of receiving a gratuity from Ferdinand, a fellow Democrat, in violation of ethics codes and state law.
   “The mayor got special, preferential treatment,” Anderson said. “When you put yourself above the public, then you have taken your position and made it for personal gain rather than for public service.”
   In a statement, Reed’s office said there was “nothing improper about this four-year-old transaction.
   “Mayor Reed exercised his option as a private citizen to resolve this issue no differently than anyone else who seeks to rectify a business tax issue,” spokesman Carlos Campos said. “We are confident these baseless charges will be dismissed.”

   Ferdinand did not respond to a request for comment.
   Fulton County’s Ethics Board will hold a probable cause hearing, tentatively scheduled Feb. 20, to decide whether to launch a formal investigation into the complaint against Ferdinand, Chairman Donald Edwards said. If the allegations were substantiated, the board could reprimand him, fine him up to $1,000 or refer the case to the district attorney.
   Atlanta ethics officer Nina Hickson said Wednesday her staff will do a “preliminary analysis” to decide whether to investigate the complaint against Reed. A hearing will be held only if officials believe there is probable cause to proceed, but Reed disputes that conclusion, Hickson said.
   The AJC reported in September that Reed’s holding company, Cascade Investors, had been chronically late paying property taxes on a vacant warehouse property in southwest Fulton County. When Reed became mayor in 2010, Cascade owed thousands of dollars in overdue taxes on the property, records show.
   Reed formed Cascade Investors with four other men in 2006 to purchase two parcels of property in unincorporated Fulton County, just outside the city of Atlanta. Records show taxes are now current on the property.
   Anderson, a former bookstore owner, has been firing off ethics complaints throughout the state for the past two decades, targeting both Republicans and Democrats on the local and state level. He puts the number at 460 since 1995.
   Anderson’s complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal have contributed to turmoil at the state ethics commission, where two top officials have filed lawsuits alleging they were pushed out of their jobs for investigating Anderson’s allegations against Deal.
   In 2004, he filed the only other ethics complaint ever lodged against Ferdinand. Anderson cried foul because the tax chief used Tom Biggers, his delinquent-tax administrator at the time, as a middleman to buy his south Fulton County cattle farm from Foxworthy Inc., a company that had bought millions of dollars in tax deeds from the county.
   The board ruled unanimously that there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue ethics charges.
   Edwards, of the Fulton ethics board, said Anderson’s complaint won’t be taken less seriously because of his frequent filer status.
   “We wouldn’t make that distinction,” he said. “We would look at the substance. He’s entitled to make his sworn complaint, and we’re required to review it and make a determination.”
   Staff Writer Katie Leslie contributed to this article.

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Saturday, January 25, 2014



AJC AT THE GOLD DOME
Bill targets tax chief ’s profits

Fulton County official gains when delinquent tax bills sold or settled.

By Johnny Edwards jredwards@ajc.com 


   State lawmakers will try again this year to rein in the sale of overdue property tax bills to private collection firms, aiming to cut profits for both the Fulton County tax collector and his biggest buyer of tax liens.


   House Bill 819, introduced this week, seeks to end practices exposed last year in several investigations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.


   The measure would stop Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand from earning 50 cents every time he sells a delinquent tax bill or a taxpayer settles a lien on his or her own. Ferdinand is apparently the only Georgia tax commissioner collecting that money, and critics have called it a staggering conflict of interest because it gives him a profit motive to sell more liens.


   As a result of the fee, Ferdinand, the state’s highest-paid elected official, has been pocketing roughly $22,000 to $31,000 extra per year, boosting his pay to about $383,000. He began billing the county for the fee two years ago, but the County Commission was unaware of the arrangement until the AJC uncovered it in August.


   The legislation also seeks to keep private companies from profiting off late taxes that property owners may not know they owe. It would require the tax office to go to greater lengths to inform residents of overdue bills.


   And if the county does sell a tax lien, a 10-percent late penalty must be included in the price. That means the county would collect the penalty, rather than the debt buyer collecting it from the taxpayer. The tax chief could no longer give away millions of dollars in potential revenue from late fees, which the AJC discovered in an analysis of Ferdinand’s tax database last year.


   Over an 11-year period, his quick sales of delinquent bills
   — before a 90-day, 10-percent penalty kicked in — resulted in the county handing as much as $20 million in potential profits to its biggest lien-buyer, Vesta Holdings, with a corresponding $20 million potential loss to taxpayers.


   “That’s been the big windfall that the buyer of these things receives,” said Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who is co-sponsoring the legislation after trying for years to cut Ferdinand’s pay and tighten lien restrictions. “It’s unconscionable.”


   Ferdinand and Vesta’s attorney, Robert Proctor, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.


   Ferdinand sells more liens than any other commissioner in the state, a practice he has defended as a guaranteed way to boost collections.


   But for the past three years, the AJC has reported how residents have nearly lost their homes because of tax bills they claim they never received. Some have said that Vesta’s legally required mailings can be easily mistaken for junk mail. The newspaper also discovered hundreds of liens sold for less than $50.


   If taxpayers don’t know about the tax bills, the collection firm racks up more interest, and they can eventually auction a home to settle the debt. Some homeowners told the AJC they didn’t find out about the bill until their houses were headed for sale on the courthouse steps.


   HB 819 would require tax commissioners to try to find taxpayers through Internet searches and people-finder databases, among other records, before slapping a lien on a property.


   Rep. Chuck Martin, RAlpharetta, the bill’s main sponsor, said some people deliberately don’t pay their taxes, and they should be punished. But there are other people who make honest mistakes, or purchase property just as the tax bill is due and don’t realize it, he said.


   “We need to give those people the opportunity to get right,” Martin said. “It’s good public policy that protects the taxpayers.”


   R.J. Morris, a tax activist who lobbied for tax collection reform at the Capitol two years ago, said he’s skeptical that the due diligence requirements could be enforced. Willard conceded it would probably come into play in lawsuits between taxpayers and the county.


   Morris said keeping the 10-percent penalty fees with the county — which was part of his platform in his unsuccessful run for tax commissioner — will help taxpayers more.


   “That is the greatest thing they could do,” he said, “because that would bring millions of dollars in revenue back to the county.”


   Staff Writer Aaron Gould Sheinin contributed to this article.


Myajc.com

   Go to MyAJC.com   to learn how Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand profits from the tax collection system he set up.
 Read more of our coverage of his extra payments, including:
   »His receipts from the federal government »Documents about his fee requests and extra payments


AJC WATCHDOG

   For the past three years, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered an array of issues involving the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office, including its sales of tax debts to private collection firms and tax chief Arthur Ferdinand’s take-home pay. Through $1-perparcel fees charged to Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs, Ferdinand boosts his annual pay by hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, making him the state’s highest-paid elected official.

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 From the Sunday Jan 12, 2014 AJC Metro Section:
http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODE/AtlantaJournalConstitution/

AJC WATCHDOG

Tax chief gets farm subsidies

Top-paid elected official takes public monies for property upkeep.

By Johnny Edwards jredwards@ajc.com

   Fulton County’s tax collector, Georgia’s top-paid elected officeholder, has tapped another source of taxpayer money: U.S. farm bill subsidies. It’s for his cows. Along with being tax commissioner, Arthur Ferdinand raises Angus cattle in rural Chattahoochee Hills, about 30 miles southwest of downtown Atlanta.
   
He acquired the farm in a shabby state a decade ago, then used public funds to help spruce up his pastures, taking in tens of thousands of dollars to put up fences, install watering stations, enhance grass quality and make other improvements to an operation he calls “Chaguanas Farm,” an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
   
The funds came through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that encourages ecofriendly land management, and Ferdinand has been one of the metro area’s top recipients of the subsidies during the past decade, data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shows.
   
Though legal, it’s yet another way the Atlanta official has steered public money his way, even as many of his constituents struggled to pay their bills in the wake of the Great Recession.
   
The taxman known for his aggressive collection tactics has also used legal loopholes to pocket fees from the county and three cities, boosting his take-home pay to upwards of $380,000 per year, previous investigations by the AJC discovered. Ferdinand now earns close to triple the pay of the governor and nearly as much as the U.S. president, even though his base salary is just $134,279.    

Meanwhile, he has spent thousands of county taxpayer dollars taking his highest-paid staffers on budget-planning trips to lakefront luxury lodges and dining with unidentified individuals for business lunches at posh restaurants. Last year, he spent $39,000 of his department’s funds to buy himself a take-home 2013 Ford Explorer Limited.


Ferdinand has responded that state law allows his extra compensation, and that his methods, including selling unpaid bills to private collection firms, keep the county flush with cash and tax rates low.
   
But incensed state lawmakers have pushed measures to stop Ferdinand from enriching himself off public office, and at least two bills targeting him are expected in next year’s legislative session.
   
His beef operation is modest — about 30 head of cattle on 70 acres. He apparently qualified for aid as a beginning cattleman earning less than $1 million per year.

   “I’m not surprised he’s found another way to skin the cat,” said state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, Ferdinand’s foremost critic in the Legislature.

   The AJC found that, since 2005, the federal government has allotted Ferdinand almost $35,000 in Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, money — the second-most given to any farmer in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties.
   
Some conservationists were shocked he has been a recipient and questioned the program’s priorities.
   
“I would prefer to tighten these things up so that farmers of need get them,” said Alan Toney, the elected chairman of the Fulton County Soil and Water Conservation District, a citizen oversight committee. “Like with any other government program, there’s things that you wish were different.”
   
Living a dream

   Ferdinand did not respond to messages seeking information about his cattle farm or the subsidies. A call to Chaguanas was answered by his wife, Betty.
   
She said the government gave them the money because their farm met all the program specifications, and she advised staying away from “things you don’t understand.”
   
“I’ve spoken to you longer than you deserve,” she said after a brief conversation, “so I’m hanging up.”
   
The Ferdinands sparked controversy when they bought the property in 2003, leading to a hearing before the county’s ethics board, but no charges.
   
The tax chief used Tom Biggers, his delinquent-tax administrator at the time, as a middleman to buy it from Foxworthy Inc., a company that had bought millions of dollars in tax deeds from the county.
   
Ferdinand has said he needed Biggers’ help because, in the past, he and his wife had problems buying property in Georgia because they are black. He said his office had no involvement in the bank foreclosure auction where Fox-worthy obtained the land.
   
The board ruled unanimously that there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue ethics charges.
   
In affidavits filed in the case, the Ferdinands said they shared a dream of owning their own farm, and Betty Ferdinand said she led the search for income-producing acreage.
   
She described the land they chose, off Hutcheson Ferry Road, as abandoned and overgrown, with a dilapidated swimming pool and a burned-out house. They also bought an adjacent property with a house that they planned to rent out.
   
They named the land Chaguanas, which is the largest borough of Trinidad and Tobago, Arthur Ferdinand’s native country. Their driveway is within a few hundred yards of an entrance to south Fulton’s eco-chic Serenbe community.
   
They don’t live there; county records show their primary residence is in southwest Atlanta.
   
Saving nature or boosting production?

   An online article produced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of USDA, touts the Ferdinands’ farm as “another conservation success story.” It describes the couple spending four years clearing kudzu and brush before they could start farming.
   
The article says Ferdinand sought help getting started from the county extension office, which directed him to USDA.
   
Through EQIP, taxpayers helped turn his property around.

   The federal government chipped in almost $2,800 in fencing costs, more than $1,700 for pasture and hayland planting, $3,000 for drinking stations and $3,300 for grading, graveling and soil protection, records of his earliest contract show.
   
Ferdinand has since been allotted another $11,000 for electric and barbed-wire fencing, $4,200 for graveling and $2,100 for cow watering.
   
The farm improvements allow them to rotate the cattle between grazing sections and protect the paths where the cows trod, the agency reported.
   
“Establishing these practices has increased the quality of grass and hay supply on their land, diminishing the need for extra additives in his cattle’s food supply,” the article said. “ ... All of these practices cut down on the daily upkeep of the land, thus lowering overall cost.”
   
EQIP isn’t designed to supplement farmers’ in come, but rather to keep farmers from sullying the environment, according to Craig Cox of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington research organization pushing for farm bill reform.
   
Like rotating crops, rotating cattle among different grazing areas cuts down on erosion, reducing sediment runoff into tributaries of the Chattahoochee. Fences and alternative water sources keep cows out of streams.
   
But Cox, the organization’s senior vice president over agriculture and natural resources, said the federal government shouldn’t be paying farmers to do things they ought to do anyway. Cox questions whether too much of the billions of dollars spent on EQIP since the 1990s has gone to helping farmers maximize profits, rather than solving environmental problems.
   
“This could have been designed to solve a problem that is worth the taxpayer investment,” Cox said of the funds for Ferdinand. “But it could have been designed to improve his pasture so he can graze more cattle, and the cattle gain more weight.”
   
Washington-based Citizens Against Government Waste has asked Congress to lower the income limits to $250,000 for farmers receiving commodity and conservation subsidies, to no avail.
   
Valerie Pickard, the USDA’s district conservationist for the metro Atlanta area, approved Ferdinand’s application based on a ranking system. She said concerns about water sources near Ferdinand’s property played into in his allocation. Some of the funds went toward fencing off a pond.
   
“It’s helping them to achieve their goal of having a farm,” she said, “to maintain a farm and preserve its natural resources.”
   
The larger picture

   Willard, the state representative, said lawmakers can’t do anything about Ferdinand’s federal aid. They’ll focus instead on shrinking his power and forcing a pay cut.
   
One bill pending in the Senate would make the Fulton tax commissioner an appointed position starting in 2017, meaning that if Ferdinand wants to stay on after his current term ends, when he’ll be 76, he would work at the pleasure of county commissioners instead of voters.
   
Another measure being drafted would undo a law dating to the Great Depression, when many constitutional officers got paid through fees rather than salaries, allowing tax commissioners to collect 50 cents every time a debtor paid off a tax lien.
   
An AJC investigation last summer exposed how Ferdinand seized upon that law to profit off his controversial practice of selling liens to private collectors, adding about $22,000 to $31,000 per year to his annual pay.
   
Frank X. Moore, an attorney who has represented more than a dozen property owners pitted against debt buyers and Ferdinand’s office, said taxpayers should also be concerned about the nearly $35,000 he’s receiving for his cows.
   
“That’s a whole lot of money to Rita James, who gets by on $700 a month in Social Security,” he said of one client, a grandmother in her 70s who nearly lost her home because of a billing error and a lien sale. “This guy has no shame. He seems to be an expert at benefiting from government.”

Arthur Ferdinand is Georgia’s top-paid elected officeholder, with take-home pay of $380,000.

Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand acquired the 70-acre farm off Hutcheson Ferry Road in south Fulton County about 10 years ago.

===================================
   
BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

METRO ATLANTA’S TOP EQIP RECIPIENTS
   
An analysis of farm bill data found that of all farmers in Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett counties, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has received the second-highest allocation of funds during the past decade. The top five recipients:

ABOUT EQIP
   › Originally authorized by the 1996 farm bill › Funded at more than $4 billion since its inception › Purpose: To help agricultural producers manage their operations in ways that protect soil, water, plant, animal and air resources, on both farmland and forestland.
   › Provides financial and technical help through contracts of up to 10 years.
   › EQIP contracts in Georgia totaled $13.4 million in 2011, $24.8 million in 2012 and $28.6 million this year.
   › An estimated one out of every three EQIP applicants receives funding in Georgia, but no farmers have been turned down in Fulton County in the past several years because so few applied.
   › Benefits are limited to individuals or entities with adjusted gross incomes of $1 million per year or less.
   › Records show Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has received four allocations: $11,543 (2005), $5,346 (2009), $3,531 (2011) and $14,188 (2013). For the 2013 contract, he has yet to receive $8,518, data shows.
   
SOURCE: U.S. DEPARTMENT OFAGRICULTURE LITERATURE; DATA PROVIDED
   BYTHE NATURAL RESOURCES CONSERVATION SERVICE UNDER A FEDERAL
   FREEDOM OF INFORMATION ACT REQUEST; FEDERAL DATA COMPILED BY
   THE ENVIRONMENTALWORKING GROUP; FULTON COUNTY SOILAND WATER
   CONSERVATION DISTRICT CHAIRMAN ALAN TONEY
AJC WATCHDOG COVERAGE
   
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered an array of issues involving the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office, including its sales of tax debts to private collection firms and tax chief Arthur Ferdinand’s take-home pay. Through $1-per-parcel fees charged to Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs, Ferdinand boosts his annual pay by hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, making him the state’s highest-paid elected official.
   
This year, the AJC revealed how Ferdinand’s quick sales of delinquent tax bills, before the county collected a 10 percent penalty, handed as much as $20 million in potential revenues to Vesta Holdings, the biggest lien buyer, with a corresponding $20 million loss to taxpayers. The AJC also discovered that Ferdinand dipped into his budget to buy a 2013 Ford Explorer Limited for $39,000, which he can use for his commute to work.
   
Another investigation revealed he has been earning an extra $22,000 to $31,000 per year by taking 50 cents every time he sells a tax lien to a collector or a taxpayer pays off a lien themselves, which critics called a staggering conflict of interest.
   
Then the AJC revealed Ferdinand personally intervened after a tax debt owed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s real estate holding company, Cascade Investors, was sold to Vesta. The Tax Commissioner’s Office got the debt transferred back to the county, then later filed documents asking the Superior Court Clerk to remove all liens filed against Cascade from the record.
   

=================================================================== 12/11/13

Local neighborhood says Fulton Tax Commissioner is costing them millions

NBC Atlanta - 9:56 PM, Dec 10, 2013 

EAST POINT, Ga. -- It is an economic success story on the southwest side of Atlanta. Anchored by the Camp Creek Marketplace, this ambitious area west of Hartsfield-Jackson Airport has quietly thrived over the last decade.


"This is a great side of town. We've got the airport here. We've got great hotels here, we've got great businesses here," said Brianna Williams, who lives in the area.

"It's just a nice place to be. We all can't live on the north side," added David Cole, another resident.

For the last seven months, property owners in this area have tried to form a community improvement district. CIDs are commonplace on the north side of town. They are self taxing and funnel extra tax money into their own district for infrastructure and other improvements. They've been unable to form that CID, they say, because the Fulton County tax commissioner has blocked it.

The tax commissioner is Arthur Ferdinand-- the elected official with the highest salary in the state. Ferdinand made $383,000 last year -- by taking his county salary, personally collecting fees on certain tax bills, and by personally collecting legal kickbacks from debt collectors.

"This by the way is taxation that I volunteered for," said Neel Shah, who owns two hotels in the proposed CID.

Neel Shah owns two hotels in the proposed district. He says seven months of foot dragging by Commissioner Ferdinand is costing his area's proposed CID millions of dollars.

"So I feel like I've lost $6.5 million or more than that - money that was going to be directed into that area, specifically for security, lighting and cleanup," Shah said.

Shah says instead, much of that money has been redirected to wealthier communities on the north side of Atlanta.

Ferdinand released a statement that said in part: "Our office is required to assure prior to certification, that each CID establishes that 50% of the property owners approve the creation of the CID and those consenting owners must own 75% of the fair market value of the properties within the proposed CID boundary.

"In vetting the ownership information of the proposed Airport West CID, we have concerns that give rise to a need for further review to assure the thresholds have been satisfied."

Shah says Ferdinand is mistaken. "They themselves admitted that we were within 100 percent compliance on our paperwork," he said.

-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: http://www.11alive.com/news/article/315551/40/Local-neighborhood-says-Fulton-Tax-Commissioner-is-costing-them-millions
 http://11alive.com/

======================================================================

10/3/13
AJC WATCHDOG
  Pay cut sought for tax chief
  Fulton tries to curb official’s profiting from each sale of tax debt.
  By Johnny Edwards  jredwards@ajc.com     


Another effort is brewing to cut the pay of the state’s highest-paid elected official — something frequently attempted but never accomplished.


Instead, pay has shot up for Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand over the years as he has found more ways to profit from tax collections. On Wednesday the Fulton County Commission formally asked state lawmakers to cut off one of his income sources — a 50-cent fee he earns every time his office sells a tax debt to a private collection firm.

Commissioners were unaware of the arrangement until it was exposed in an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in August.

 
Ferdinand is likely the only Georgia tax chief keeping that fee, which also fattens his paycheck when delinquent taxpayers pay off a lien on their own. He has been pocketing roughly $22,000 to $31,000 extra per year. That boosted his pay last year to about $383,000 for a job where he started out earning $77,400 in 1997.



Commission Vice Chairwoman Emma Darnell, who represents the western portion of Atlanta, called the practice “citizen exploitation,” giving the tax chief a personal financial incentive to transfer more liens to profit-driven investors. 


If they don’t get paid, those investors can auction off homes to settle accounts, and some homeowners have complained that has happened over relatively small sums that they didn’t know they owed.


   “It is a burden to a taxpayer who’s already scrambling to keep his house,” said Darnell, who proposed the resolution approved by the board 6-0.
 

Her resolution also calls on Ferdinand to give up the practice on his own. But the measure has no binding effect. And while the commission sets the budget for the tax commissioner’s office, it otherwise has no authority over a fellow elected official. 


Regardless, some state lawmakers already were planning to repeal the law Ferdinand has been using to collect the fees.


   “I think the perception of the public is, there’s an enrichment beyond what is deserved,” state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said. “As an elected official, he should understand the uneasiness that the public has.”


Ferdinand did not respond to a message from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution seeking com  ment about the issue.


Earlier this year, Ferdinand’s only response to questions about his personal profits and the potential conflict was to cite the state law that the Fulton County Attorney’s Office said justified the payments. That law dates back at least to the Great Depression, when most tax commissioners earned their pay through fees.


Ferdinand said of his motives in a July email, “My intent is to make sure taxes are paid as quickly as possible.”


While Darnell’s proposal would cut Ferdinand’s pay by tens of thousands of dollars per year, he would still earn roughly $350,000 per year. That’s more than twice as much as Gov. Nathan Deal and nearing the pay of Presi  dent Barack Obama.


Most of his pay comes from a separate fee he pockets, the $1 per parcel he charges to Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs for adding their city tax bills to county tax bills.


Ferdinand started billing the county 50 cents for every tax lien settled or sold off in late 2010, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found. He also sought payments going back to 2002, but the county would agree only to go back to July 2007.
 

He started receiving the fees in 2011, including a lump sum payment of more than $87,000 that boosted his total pay that year to more than $438,000. 


The approval to pay him was given quietly, discussed between Ferdinand’s office, the Finance Department and county lawyers, but not with the County Commission. Interim County Manager David Ware, who was county attorney at the time, declined to speak to a reporter Wednesday when asked why the deal wasn’t disclosed to commissioners.


North Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann said the fees should go to the county, as they did before Ferdinand got them diverted.
 

Past efforts to reroute some of Ferdinand’s pay have failed. 


 Six years ago, state Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, sponsored a law designed to regulate cities’ payments to counties for tax collections. But Ferdinand contends the law doesn’t trump his pre-existing contracts with the three cities to collect the $1-per-parcel fees.


In 2012, Willard and state Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, were part of another fruitless effort to stop Ferdinand from earning the fees from cities. The Georgia Association of Tax Officials successfully shot that down, arguing that the measure would weaken the power of tax commissioners statewide.

 Another try came in this year’s session, when Republicans introduced House Bill 346, which would make Fulton’s tax commissioner an appointed county official again in 2017, serving at the will of the County Commission. That bill stalled in the Senate but will be back in play next year. 


Willard said stopping the 50-cent fees won’t be nearly as complicated, just a matter of removing an archaic law from the books.

   “I think this is a nobrainer,” he said. “Everybody says it’s ridiculous, 
  it’s wrong. It’s just an old statute, and he’s taking advantage of it.”

In 2010, Ferdinand earned $1 off the sale of two liens worth a combined $660 on the Reynoldstown home of Sam Gris.

Gris, a former Alpharetta police officer, said he never received notice of the unpaid sums and found about the liens only through a credit check.

   “If I had been told I would get (a cut) off every citation I wrote, then that would have been a pretty big incentive to write tickets,” Gris said. “And that’s essentially what he’s doing.”
 

IN-DEPTH COVERAGE  
 
 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has uncovered problems stemming from the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office’s sales of tax debts to private collection firms. Previous articles described how homeowners didn’t know they owed overdue taxes until their homes were being auctioned and they owed thousands of dollars in penalties and interest to settle small bills. Arthur Ferdinand has also taken heat for being the state’s highest-paid elected official through personal fees from tax collections in Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek.

 

  AJC WATCHDOG COVERAGE

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has covered an array of issues involving the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office’s sales of tax debts to private collection firms and how tax chief Arthur Ferdinand’s pay has come under scrutiny. This year, the AJC revealed how Ferdinand’s quick sales of delinquent tax bills, before the county collected a 10 percent penalty, handed as much as $20 million in potential revenues to Vesta Holdings, the biggest lien buyer, with a corresponding $20 million loss to taxpayers. The AJC also discovered that Ferdinand had dipped into his budget to buy a 2013 Ford Explorer Limited for $39,000, which he can use for his commute to work.

Another investigation, published Sunday, revealed that Ferdinand personally intervened after a tax debt owed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s real estate holding company, Cascade Investors, was sold to Vesta. The Tax Commissioner’s Office got the debt transferred back to the county, then later filed documents asking the Superior Court Clerk to remove all liens filed against Cascade from the record.
 


--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

AJC WATCHDOG

Reed dodges lien on late tax

Fulton tax chief ’s intervention departs from aggressive tactics.

By Shannon McCaffrey smcaffrey@ajc.com   and Johnny Edwards jredwards@ajc.com

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s real estate investment company has been chronically late paying taxes on a vacant warehouse south of the city. And when one overdue bill got turned over to a collection firm, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand — another prominent Democrat — intervened personally to return the debt to the county.

Ferdinand’s intervention, which spared Reed potential public embarrassment, runs counter to the aggressive tactics the tax office typically uses in selling liens on delinquent properties.
The chain of events, exclusively documented by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through open records requests, left a bitter taste in the mouths of some who have battled with Ferdinand’s office over the years.

"It must be nice to have the ability to handle something like that without eight to 10 years of litigation," said attorney Frank X. Moore, who has represented more than a dozen property owners pitted against debt buyers and the county tax office. "I would say, it sure pays to have friends in power." Reed’s lawyer, Robert High-smith, denied that Ferdinand gave Reed special treatment. "He didn’t make an exception," Highsmith said. "If the tax commissioner had not agreed with us (that the debt was sold in error), they would not have withdrawn the lien."
Neither Reed nor Ferdinand consented to the AJC’s requests for interviews. Reed’s representatives pointed out that the company is now current on its tax bills.

His camp reiterated what Ferdinand himself had said in legal filings: that the lien should never have been sold, because the mayor’s company had already paid the taxes.

However, on that and other crucial points, their explanations do not square with records obtained by the AJC. The check for the tax bill was dated months after Ferdinand’s office bought the debt back from the collection company.

An investment that stalled
Reed’s tax problem had its roots in 2006, when he formed Cascade Investors with four other men to purchase property near his home in the southwest corner of the city. Reed was listed as managing member of the investment group until 2012, according to personal financial disclosures filed with the state and city.

According to the mayor’s spokeswoman, Sonji Jacobs, the partners also include Atlanta lawyers Lawrence and Robbie Ashe, father and son, respectively, of former Democratic state Rep. Kathy Ashe. The other partners are Aldrin Davis, a rap artist and producer better known as D J Toomp, and Darrell Anderson, a longtime friend of Reed who owns a limousine company. Reed has a 20 percent stake in the property.

At a foreclosure auction in November 2006, Cascade bought a vacant warehouse on Fairburn Road, paying about $1 million. Seven months later the partnership purchased a 3.5-acre wooded parcel adjacent to the warehouse for another $425,000. Both properties lie in unincorporated Fulton County, a stone’s throw from the Atlanta city line.

The plan, Anderson said in an interview with the AJC, was to create retail space and loft apartments, akin to the development taking place on the north side of the city.

"We wanted to do something and create investment on the south side, where there wasn’t anything of that level going on," Anderson said.

But their timing was off. The real estate collapse in 2007 stalled their plans, Anderson said, perhaps indefinitely. The warehouse sits empty. And since 2006, county records show that Cascade has repeatedly been late in paying its taxes, ultimately paying $15,000 in interest and penalties as a result.

Ferdinand takes a hand

During the 2009 mayor’s race, rival Mary Norwood blasted Reed’s failure to pay taxes on time. Reed narrowly beat Norwood.
When he became mayor in January 2010, Cascade Investors owed about $16,000 in overdue 2009 taxes.
Records show that in May 2010, the tax commissioners’ office sold that debt to Vesta Holdings, the county’s biggest buyer of tax liens. Vesta could have eventually auctioned off the warehouse to settle the account.

A week after the debt was sold, Ferdinand’s administrator of delinquent taxes, Terry Noble, sent an email to Richard Robinson of Vesta.

"Based on my conversation with Dr. Ferdinand," Noble said, "I am requesting that you transfer the referenced parcel... back to to Fulton County as soon as possible."

Reed’s lawyer, Highsmith, told the AJC that he did contact the tax office on behalf of Cascade, seeking to have the lien reversed. But he said no political favoritism was involved, because he did not mention that Reed was among Cascade’s partners.

Subsequently, the AJC obtained a letter, written by High-smith, indicating that Ferdinand already knew of Reed’s involvement. That’s because Reed himself had previously spoken to Ferdinand about Cas cade’s tax troubles.

According to the letter, Reed met with the tax commissioner in April 2010, seeking to clear up confusion over the address to which the tax bills should be mailed.

Queried about that meeting, Jacobs, the mayor’s spokeswoman, portrayed it as accidental, not an attempt by the mayor to involve Ferdinand in resolving Cascade’s tax delinquency.

"Mayor Reed checked on his tax records," she told the AJC in an email, "and like any other citizen might do, went to the office in person. When folks heard he was in the building, they apparently told Mr. Ferdinand, who came out to speak with him."

Jacobs said Cascade failed to pay the 2009 bill because it was sent to the wrong address: the midtown Atlanta law firm Holland and Knight, where Reed was a partner before becoming mayor.

Highsmith is the firm’s executive partner. As recently as 2012, he said in a letter to Ferdinand that the firm represents Cascade Investors in tax matters.

Jacobs said Reed had tried multiple times to change the address. However, the Tax Assessor’s Office, which is separate from Ferdinand’s office, and which maintains the address files, told the AJC it has no record of any attempt by Cascade to change where its mail was sent before 2012.

Highsmith also blamed a mailing mix-up for Cascade’s problems. He said the partnership never received a legally-required notice before the county filed a lien against its property, and that’s why the Tax Commissioner’s Office had to undo the lien.

But records in Ferdinand’s office show a notice was generated well in advance. The AJC obtained a copy, and it bore Holland and Knight’s address.

It is not uncommon for property owners whose tax liens are sold by Ferdinand to claim they were not properly notified; Ferdinand’s policy in such cases is to tell the taxpayers to resolve the matter by satisfying the debt with the firm that bought it.

One more twist
In 2012, two years after his initial involvement, Ferdinand took another action that benefited Reed. He filed a document saying the county had erred in placing a tax claim against the warehouse in the first place. And he instructed the Superior Court Clerk to remove the lien from the record.

A stamp on the document said the lien was issued through "inadvertence," and that "payment processed before lien was filed."
But Cascade’s check was dated months after the county bought back the debt from Vesta.

In response to questions about the apparent discrepancy, Highsmith said Cascade had tried earlier to pay the taxes with a cashier’s check. No such check turned up in an open records request to the tax office for all checks received from Cascade, dating back to 2006.

Highsmith said he could produce a copy for the AJC, but he did not.
Ferdinand also nullified the only other two claims ever placed against Cascade’s properties despite years of late taxes, according to Superior Court records. The tax chief filed documents telling the clerk to remove both a lien for 2009 taxes against the wooded parcel and a lien for 2011 taxes against the warehouse because of "address change" issues.

Those who have tussled with Vesta and Ferdinand’s office over the years were livid to hear of Reed’s treatment. Moore, the attorney, said some of his clients have been held to a different standard despite having far better excuses for not receiving notice of taxes or liens.

One such client was Rita James, a grandmother in her 70s, who nearly lost her home because of a billing error.

After James paid off her mortgage, Moore said, she paid the tax bills that came to her house in her name.

But her house straddles two subdivision lots. Another bill, as well as notices of overdue taxes and notices of the lien sale, apparently went to Archie James, a person the woman had never heard of, at an address that does not exist.

Ferdinand’s office issued a lien, then sold the debt to Vesta, which auctioned the parcel. The winning bidder put a claim against James, and she had to hire Moore and take the matter to court to keep her home. Last year Ferdinand’s office placed two liens against Mark Scott’s Buckhead house when he was three and two months late paying his city and county tax bills. A Vesta company bought the liens.

Scott paid $34,650 to settle up. He acknowledges that he was at fault, but he said he wishes he’d had the privilege of dealing with the county instead of Vesta. Taxpayers have long complained that Vesta makes little effort to inform them of debts and can be difficult to contact when they try to pay them off.
"It’s flat-out wrong," Scott said of the way Reed’s firm was treated. "You need to be held to the same standard as the people that are paying your salary."
 
A vacant warehouse sits fenced off along Fairburn Road in Fulton County. Records show that property taxes on the warehouse, owned by an investment company managed by Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, have been habitually paid late. KENT D. JOHNSON / KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM   
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed did not seek special treatment from the Fulton County tax commissioner, the mayor’s spokeswoman says. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM    

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

With Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed seeking a second term, Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Shannon McCaffrey decided re-examine his financial records and real estate holdings, discovering that the mayor’s real estate holding company, Cascade Investors, had a history of paying taxes late. Meanwhile, AJC reporter Johnny Edwards had been scrutinizing the collection practices of Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferininand, having recently exposed how he personally profits from the sale of tax liens to private investors.

The reporters discovered an email, obtained through an open records request, that brought the two issues together. In June 2010, Ferdinand’s delinquent tax administrator, Terry Noble, sent an email to Richard Robinson of Vesta Holdings, seeking the return of a lien worth $18,500 against Cascade’s warehouse on Fairburn Road. Noble said he’d had a"conversation with Dr. Ferdinand"about the matter.

Intrigued, McCaffrey and Edwards pored through online tax records and lien records filed with the Fulton County Superior Court Clerk. They also filed open records requests for checks used to pay taxes on the property, discovering that — contrary to a court filing by Ferdinand — Reed’s company actually paid eight months late. Attempts to interview Ferdinand and Reed about the matter were fruitless, and Reed’s camp offered a shifting narrative that didn’t hold up to scrutiny.

For example, Reed’s representatives said he never received notice that the county planned to file a lien against the property because the county failed to process a change-of-address request. However, the Tax Assessors Office says tax mailings went to Reed’s attorney’s office from 2007 to 2011.

Also, Reed’s attorney said he contacted the Tax Commissioner’s Office seeking reversal of the lien, and that he never dropped the mayor’s name. However, the reporters obtained a letter, written by Reed’s attorney, saying that Reed and Ferdinand had met in April 2010 to discuss Cascade’s tax account.

TIMELINE

November 2006: Kasim Reed creates Cascade Investors LLC, a real estate holding company. Cascade purchases a 38,156-square-foot warehouse in southwest Fulton County for $1 million at a foreclosure auction.

July 2007: Cascade Investors purchases another 3-acre parcel adjacent to the warehouse for $425,000.
December 2009: Reed elected mayor of Atlanta.

March 12, 2010: Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand places a lien against the warehouse property for a $16,392. The bill, at this point, is almost three months late.

April 2010: Ferdinand and Reed meet personally to talk about Cascade’s tax account, according to a letter written by Reed’s attorney.The newly elected mayor, the letter says, asked for an address change, and Ferdinand told him to take that up with the Tax Assessor’s Office.

May 26, 2010: Vesta Holdings buys the warehouse lien from Ferdinand.

June 2, 2010: Ferdinand’s delinquent tax administrator, Terry Noble, sends an email to Richard Robinson of Vesta Holdings saying,"Based on my conversation with Dr. Ferdinand, I am requesting that you transfer the referenced parcel (2009 FUL cycle) back to Fulton County as soon as possible." Aug. 10, 2010: Cascade Investors issues a check totalling $25,147 to Ferdinand for the 2009 taxes, interest and penalties on the warehouse, as well as for most of the 2009 taxes on the adjacent lot.

February 24, 2012:  Ferdinand’s office files another copy of the warehouse lien with a message saying it was filed in error because payment had actually been received before the lien was originally filed.



March 12, 2012:  Ferdinand’s office files copies of two other liens against Cascade’s properties for late-paid 2009 and 2011 taxes, again directing the Superior Court Clerk to remove them from the record because of"address change"issues. The letter from Reed’s attorney to Ferdinand referencing their April 2010 meeting is dated the same day, and adds, "We are grateful to your office for having the FiFa marked as having been issued in error."

August 2013: Reed announces he will seek a second term.

============================================================

9/1/13


Just my opinion: 

Fulton County Tax Assessor Ferdinand remains in the news with new actions which will cost Fulton tax payers additional thousands of dollars to defend Ferdinand for acting out his private vendetta against a County Commissioner who is on his Nixionian 'Enemies List'.


A grand jury is needed to look into the relationship between Ferdinand and the firm he sells most of his tax liens to.  Past time for the tax payers in Fulton to start making some noise.

The complicating factor here is that Ferdinand is BLACK and a Democrat, most other Black voters/taxpayers are not going to back any effort to look into a fellow Black and Democrat.  This is just the way minorities act, they protect their own, but until a grand jury takes up the matter, Ferdinand will continue to line his pockets and run rough shod over anyone he perceives as an 'enemy'.


Just a minor comment on how these scandals generally break down:


If it's sex it's a Republican, if it's money it is a Democrat.


Summary:  Arthur Ferdinand needs to go.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 8/12/13





Liens a cash cow for Fulton tax chief  http://gapundit.com/2013/08/12/liens-a-cash-cow-for-fulton-tax-chief-www-myajc-com/

Posted on August 12, 2013 5:45 AM by Todd Rehm











When the housing crisis was squeezing Atlanta and many homeowners struggled to pay their property taxes, life was getting sweeter for Fulton County’s chief tax collector.

Seizing on a law on the books since the Great Depression, by 2010 Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand had found a way to personally profit from the controversial collection system he set up.

Now, Ferdinand takes a cut every time his office sells a tax debt to a private collection firm or the taxpayer antes up, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found. He already was Georgia’s highest-paid elected official, but a 50-cent fee he now gets on each and every paid-off lien has added tens of thousands a dollars a year to his pay.
With the boost, Ferdinand earned $383,000 last year for a job where he started out earning $77,400 in 1997.

Not even county commissioners knew how much he really makes, even though the fees were going into county coffers before they were diverted to Ferdinand’s pocket. He may be Georgia’s only tax commissioner taking that money.

Ferdinand wouldn’t discuss the payments, saying only that they are "permitted by law." And Fulton County’s lawyers have blessed the arrangement, though they will not explain their reasoning.

Other attorneys, though, are not so sure Ferdinand can legally take both a full salary and a slice of lien proceeds, and they say the arrangement creates a staggering conflict of interest. The tax commissioner, critics say, now has a profit motive to hurl more taxpayers into a system that can put them at risk of losing their homes over small debts.

No other tax commissioner in Georgia sells so many tax liens to private debt collectors. With each sale, Ferdinand hears cha-ching!
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AJC WATCHDOG
Tax chief profits from selling others’ debts 
 
  Fulton County official collects lien fees on top of healthy salary. 

 
  By Johnny Edwards  jredwards@ajc.com   


When the housing crisis was squeezing Atlanta and many homeowners struggled to pay their property taxes, life was getting sweeter for Fulton County’s chief tax collector.


Seizing on a law on the books since the Great Depression, Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand had found a way by 2010 to personally profit from the controversial collection system he set up.


Now, Ferdinand takes a cut every time his office sells a tax debt to a private collection firm or the taxpayer antes up, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found. He already was Georgia’s highest-paid elected official, but a 50-cent fee he now gets on each and every paid-off lien has added tens of thousands of dollars a year to his pay.


With the boost, Ferdinand earned $383,000 last year for a job where he started out earning $77,400 in 1997. Not even county commissioners knew how much he really makes, even though the fees were going into county coffers before they were diverted to Ferdinand’s pocket. He may be Georgia’s only tax commissioner taking that money.


Ferdinand wouldn’t discuss the payments, saying only that they are “permitted by law.” And Fulton County’s lawyers have blessed the arrangement, though they will not explain their reasoning.

Other attorneys, though, are not so sure Ferdinand can legally take both a full salary and a slice of lien proceeds, and they say the arrangement creates a staggering conflict of interest. The tax commissioner, critics say, now has a profit motive to hurl more taxpayers into a system that can put them at risk of losing their homes over small debts.

 
No other tax commissioner in Georgia sells so many tax liens to private debt collectors. With each sale, Ferdinand hears cha-ching!


“This incentivizes him to pass your debt to a third-party collector,” said Hugh Wood, a partner with Wood & Meredith, a law firm that handles real estate litigation. “The tax commissioner now has two masters. Either he is serving himself, or he is serving the taxpayer.”

Ferdinand said of his motives in an email, “My intent is to make sure taxes are paid as quickly as possible.”


To questions about his personal profits and the potential conflict, Ferdinand’s only response was to cite the state law that the Fulton County Attorney’s Office said justified the payments — a law dating back at least to 1933, when most tax commissioners earned their pay through fees.

“Just because there is a law on the books that authorizes certain behavior,” state Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, said, “that doesn’t mean it’s ethically or morally the appropriate thing to do.”



 Seizing a new cash stream

The lien fees Ferdinand is paid come on top of his six-figure county salary and on top of the $1-per-parcel fees he collects from Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs for adding their city tax bills to county bills.



So far Ferdinand has been pocketing roughly $22,000 to $31,000 extra per year from the lien fees. The county doesn’t give rank-and-file employees in Ferdinand’s office, who do the paperwork and average about $35,000 per year in pay, a portion of the extra compensation.



The payments came to light through earning statements and other documents the county turned over to the AJC in response to open records requests.



An interoffice memo shows Ferdinand began seeking the money in 2010, citing the old state law. He initially wanted back payments for about 365,000 liens paid off since 2002.



“At your earliest convenience,” he wrote to Finance Director Patrick O’Connor on Nov.10, “please issue a check in the name of Arthur E. Ferdinand for the full amount of $182,492, in accordance with State Law.”  


O’Connor and his staff turned to Fulton County’s law department for advice, emails show. 

The County Attorney’s Office issued a legal ruling saying Ferdinand had a right to the money, Assistant Finance Director Sharon Whitmore told the AJC. The county would agree to go back only to July 2007 with retroactive payments, she said, so in 2011 Ferdinand received a lump sum payment of more than $87,000. 


That year, he took home more than $438,000.


There was no public discussion of the change, and county commissioners, who set Ferdinand’s budget, say they weren’t aware of it until contacted by the newspaper. 


“If what you’re saying is accurate, I seriously wouldn’t support that,” Commissioner Robb Pitts said. “I think it’s a terrible practice. A base salary ought to be sufficient.” 

The executive director of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials said he isn’t aware of any other tax commissioner in the state collecting such payments.

  When most tax commissioners began receiving salaries, local legislation forbade them from still keeping fees, too, Dan Ray said. In Rockdale County, where he formerly served as tax chief before leading GATO, county code specifies that.



Tax commissioners in Cobb and Gwinnett are paid a salary and the lien fees go to their counties, not to them. DeKalb Tax Commissioner Claudia Lawson earns personal fees for billing nine cities’ taxes — earning nearly $237,000 last year including her salary — but gets nothing extra when liens are paid off.
 

Not even Haralson County Tax Commissioner Barbara Ridley, who still relies on commissions from tax collections and motor vehicle fees for her pay, keeps the 50-cent lien fees.


 The law department won’t release its opinion to the AJC, citing attorney-client privilege. 


And even though the Fulton Commission is the county attorney’s No. 1 client, commissioners said they did not receive a copy of the opinion. None of the memos or emails obtained by the AJC through the Open Records Act appears to have been forwarded to commissioners or their staff members, either.  
  

Wood, the real estate attorney, said he is not convinced Fulton County is on solid legal ground in routing the funds to Ferdinand. His research turned up contradicting case law and state Attorney General’s Office opinions from decades ago, and he finds it troublesome that Fulton’s tax chief is operating unlike any of his Georgia counterparts.


 “I’d say the answer is, ‘We’re not sure,’ ” Wood said, “because they’re sitting on their opinion and they won’t give it to you.” 

 Commissioner Tom Lowe said he wasn’t aware of the payments. Still, he is hesitant to criticize Ferdinand. 

“Look at the collections on time — tremendously better than before he came into office,” Lowe said. 

Before Ferdinand took office in 1997, the county’s collection rate averaged between 89 percent and 92 percent — with more   than $200 million in delinquent taxes slipping through its grasp. 

Upon winning the job, he promptly vowed to crack down on delinquents, and he was very much on board with then-County Commission Chairman Mitch Skandalakis’ push for lien sales — essentially using the private sector to pay tax debts. 

In Ferdinand’s first year in office, the collection rate jumped to 96 percent and has reached 98 to 99 percent in years since. That’s about the level of other counties’ collection rates. 

 “I’m not looking to excuse Arthur Ferdinand, don’t get me wrong,” Lowe said. “But I think anything he did, he did it because the law permits it.”


 Northside’s elusive target

   Several North Fulton state lawmakers, though, were livid upon being informed of the profits from liens. They called Ferdinand’s position audacious, considering that he already earns more than twice as much as Gov. Nathan Deal. 


“That’s outrageous,” said state House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, R-Milton, who had to pay the county’s biggest lien buyer — Vesta Holdings — $105 to satisfy a lien against her home in 2011. “He has a built-in incentive to slap a lien before a taxpayer has had adequate notice to clean up a mistake, even.”


Jones and state Rep. Wendell Willard, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said they would work to overturn the state law Ferdinand is using to justify the payments and expressed hope the revelations will attract support for a bill targeting Ferdinand that stalled in the Senate earlier this year. 
 

House Bill 346 would make Fulton’s tax commissioner an appointed county official again, serving at the will of the County Commission, starting in 2017. Willard — who has failed repeatedly to curb Ferdinand’s compensation — said it’s his only avenue left to stop the tax commissioner from enriching himself through public office.


“It’s just not reasonable,” Jones said, “for someone to have compensation, a public official, at that level.”


  Including fees he collects, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand was paid $383,000 last year. When he began the job in 1997, he made $77,400. JASON GETZ /  JGETZ@AJC.COM

Coming Monday 

  Each year, Georgia tax chiefs meet at the state’s top resorts for a conference that allows time to golf and hobnob with vendors. Picking up the tab are taxpayers and companies seeking contracts, an AJC investigation found.

 

  About this story

A series of investigations by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this year has spotlighted concerns about operations of the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office. Among the stories, the AJC reported in February that Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand’s quick sales of delinquent tax bills, before the county collected a 10 percent penalty, handed as much as $20 million in potential profits to Vesta Holdings, the biggest lien buyer, with a corresponding $20 million loss to taxpayers.

In April, another investigation showed how savvy investors use tax liens to short-circuit legal safeguards and quickly snatch homes away from taxpayers who get behind on bills, sometimes for a fraction of the properties’values. 


In May, the AJC discovered that Ferdinand had dipped into his budget to buy a 2013 Ford Explorer Limited for $39,000, which he can use for his commute to work.

For this story, Fulton County reporter Johnny Edwards used the Georgia Open Records Act to pore through hundreds of pages of documents showing Ferdinand’s compensation and expense reimbursements. Among them were income tax forms revealing that the tax commissioner, the state’s highest-paid elected official, has been earning even more money than previously reported.

Edwards examined campaign finance disclosure statements and property tax records. And with assistance from database reporter Jeff Ernsthausen, he used a tax lien database that the AJC obtained after a two-year open records battle with Ferdinand and the county. 


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Tax commissioner’s expenses out of line with county’s budget picture

  By Johnny Edwards  jredwards@ajc.com    

 While using his position and legal loopholes to earn nearly as much as the U.S. president, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has also reaped myriad perks from his office.


 He has soaked up luxuries at taxpayer expense, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found. Ferdinand also leaps at nickels and dimes, even pocketing county money as reimbursement for expenses he may not have had.


 “If he can find a way to squeeze another dime away from the Fulton County taxpayer, he’s going to do   it,” said Atlanta-based tax activist R.J. Morris, who ran unsuccessfully against Ferdinand last year, “and   nobody’s going to do anything about it because they’re scared of him.”


Financial documents show that during the roughest years of the Great Recession, when other county offices were scrambling to cut expenses, the tax commissioner took his five highest-paid staffers to lake-front luxury lodges for their “budget planning” sessions. Taxpayers picked up hotel bills of as much as $295 per night for each person.


 When Ferdinand has taken unidentified individuals for what his expense reports list as “business lunches,” the county has repeatedly paid his tab. Lunches for two at the restaurants he frequents — The Commerce Club and Legal Sea Foods downtown and Chops Lobster Bar in Buckhead — have cost from $47 to $86.  

 Car washes for his county-funded, take-home vehicles have cost $11 to $25. His latest vehicle, a 2013 Ford Explorer, cost taxpayers $39,000.


 For years, when he went to out-of-town conferences, he collected daily meal allowances from the county — even though many meals were already included in registration costs. County policy forbids such double dipping.

   
Meanwhile, at county expense, he showed up for conferences on Sundays, a day early, when the only items on the Monday agendas were golf and evening receptions.  

  
“My goodness, it never ends,” state Rep. Wendell Willard, a Sandy Springs city attorney who has tangled with Ferdinand over the years. “This guy will find every possible way to milk the taxpayers.”

   
Ferdinand declined an interview request but answered some questions sent to him in writing. On the staff budget-planning overnight trips, he said, “Our planning sessions are justified based upon the financial results they deliver.”

  
As to why he collected the county meal per diem for conferences where many meals   were provided, Ferdinand said, “County policy also allows for employees to eat outside of the conferences when the meals served are not suitable to the individual’s dietary needs.”

   
He did not respond to questions about whether he had any such needs. The policy the AJC obtained from the county Finance Department doesn’t list such an exception.

   
Assistant Finance Director Sharon Whitmore said in an email that it has been an administrative practice to allow for outside meals if someone submits a doctor’s letter and gets approval from the county manager. She said, through a spokeswoman, she was not aware of any such letter from Ferdinand.

   
Regardless, he told the organizers of the 2009 Georgia Association of Tax Officials conference that he didn’t have any food issues. The registration form asked, “Special dietary re   strictions?” He checked “no.”

   
For that conference in Athens, he took $140 to cover 12 meals, or three per day for four days. Based on the session times, meals provided and county rules, he was entitled to just $60.

Shielded from budget cuts

 Most county commissioners have been hesitant to reel Ferdinand in over the years, crediting his methods for quickly capturing any unpaid taxes to help fund courts, the county jail, libraries, senior services and health programs.


The commission has also given him leeway in managing his overall budget. And when other county divisions were being ordered to cut spending, Ferdinand’s office didn’t suffer from the same constraints. The past two years, when other departments have been asked to reduce their budgets by up to 5 per   cent, the Tax Commissioner’s Office has been among the few exempted.


Ferdinand has planned his office budgets at posh locations. In 2009, for example, he took his five top aides to an overnight budget-planning trip to the Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation. From 2010 to 2012, the budget was planned at the Legacy Lodge at Lake Lanier. The trips cost taxpayers about $1,700 to $2,000.

  
“It looks to me like a thinly veiled boondoggle,” Jim Honkisz, the interim president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, said. “The question is whether that’s a fair use of taxpayer dollars.”

   
That’s also a question when Ferdinand has billed the county for meal per diems — $35 a day for three meals — for the three to four conferences a year he regularly attends at public expense.  

   
Financial records show the conferences provide breakfast, lunch or dinner on some of the days. But Ferdinand repeatedly collected the full per diem.

   
For example, he received $175 for five days for the four-day 2009 TC Tech conference, at the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort on St. Simons Island. The conference opened Monday with golf, and Ferdinand arrived Sunday. Breakfast and lunch were provided Tuesday and Wednesday, and dinner was provided Wednesday, according to the agenda.

   
For the 2012 GATO conference in Athens, he received a meal per diem of $140 for four days, even though it started at 4 p.m. on Monday and ended at noon on Thursday. The registration fee of $230 included lunch Tuesday, lunch and a banquet Wednesday and a buffet breakfast Thursday.  

   For 2013’s GATO conference, though, his $140 per diem request was cut to $60. Who made the change isn’t clear.

   
The county policy on meal reimbursements says, “Generally, employees will not be provided the full per diem amount on the departure and return dates ... An employee cannot ask for per diem on a meal that is covered as part of the registration fee.”

  
However, the county apparently didn’t question his meal spending for years, even though conference information attached to his expense reports often listed the meals provided.

   Picking up the check

   Nor did the county question his requests for reimbursement for business lunches.  

   
He charged the county repeatedly for lunches at the exclusive Commerce Club on the 49th floor of 191 Peachtree Tower, often ordering crawfish chowder, pink lemonade and the spinach and rocket salad.

   
On payment vouchers, he did not say who he ate with or what business purposes the meetings served. No county policy requires that.

   
Ferdinand wouldn’t tell the AJC who accompanied him or why. “All documents required by the county were sent to Finance for processing,” he responded. “All other questions have been answered.”

   
Commissioner Bill Edwards said there’s nothing he can do about how Ferdinand spends his department’s money.

   “I am not the authority to really chastise him, because he is a constitutional officer,” Edwards said. “That’s up to the people.”  


  EXPENSES

  Arthur Ferdinand by the numbers

     COMPENSATION

   $77,400 Arthur Ferdinand’s total compensation in 1997, his first year as Fulton County tax commissioner

   
$438,000 Ferdinand’s total compensation in 2011, including an $87,000 lump sum for four years of back fees on liens

   $383,000 Ferdinand’s 2012 compensation

   $22K to $31K Amount the new 50-cent fee has added to his annual salary  

   
Amount that Ferdinand received $214,000 in personal fees in 2012 for his office’s handling of taxes for the cities of Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek $0 Amount of special fees Ferdinand’s staffers receive for their work handling liens and collecting for the three cities   $65 Average tab of Ferdinand’s business lunches for two at the Commerce Club at 191 Peachtree St., where he apparently enjoys the crawfish chowder and pink lemonade. Dining companions unknown.  

   $295 Cost per person per night for Ferdinand and his five top aides to stay at Legacy Lodge at Lake Lanier for a budget planning session  

   
OFFICE / PERSONNEL

   $14,821,716

   Fiscal year 2012 tax commissioner’s budget

   $15,280,401

   Fiscal year 2013 budget   $130,050 Annual salary of Ferdinand’s 5 top aides

   $35,354 Average salary of Ferdinand’s other full-time employees

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Monday Aug 12, 2013
AJC WATCHDOG
  Posh training for tax officials
Conference is aimed at efficiencies, but large expense spurs questions.  


By Johnny Edwards  jredwards@ajc.com


Year after year, tax chiefs from across the state pack their suitcases and motor off to some of Georgia’s top resorts, courtesy of their counties’ taxpayers and vendors. 


They take along their top staffers, at a cost of thousands of dollars for rooms, travel and food. The trips have given them chances to loll on St. Simons Island’s hard-packed beach and to enjoy the vistas of the north Georgia mountains. 

   
They also can spend time hobnobbing with county vendors, who run hospitality suites and help pay for meals and entertainment. 


Such is the flavor of the annual TC Tech Conference, put on by the Tax Commissioners’ Technology Development Council of Georgia, a confederation of about 30 tax commissioners’ offices, including those in the Atlanta metro area.




Its purpose: to teach tax collectors about new technologies that can improve efficiency. Those technologies hopefully will prevent having to hire more staffers as populations increase, according to former TC Tech Chairman David Curry, who is Henry County’s tax commissioner. 



   

But daily agendas and expense reports obtained in an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raise questions about how much of the conference is for improving operations, and how much is leisure and entertainment at public expense — or courtesy of vendors seeking government contracts.




“They seem to meet for a legitimate purpose, but the luxurious location and some of the activities would likely make most Georgians cry foul,” said William Perry, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia. “If I was a tax commissioner, I would feel uncomfortable going before a commission and justifying a large expense for this in my budget.”



   Conference organizers defend its locations, saying they look for the cheapest room rates at facilities that can accommodate large meetings.



   For the past two years — and next — the chosen facility has been Brasstown Valley Resort & Spa in Young Harris, a state-owned getaway in the mountains near the Tennessee border.



   “It’s not intended to be a vacation, and that’s what I’ve mentioned to the board before,” said Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Richard Steele, TC Tech’s current chairman.



For whose benefit?

   Last year’s four-day conference had about a half-dozen presentations on legal issues, office management and collecting taxes. But there were also sessions on fascinating facts about Georgia’s economy and planning for retirement, and the conference ended with a mystery dinner theater sponsored by vendors.

   Attendees this year had an hourlong session titled “Drink, Steal and Swear to Become the Most Effective You.” Steele said that was leadership training.

   For those willing to spend their own money, the schedules leave free time for golf. Some conferences also have provided a long afternoon free for whitewater rafting, horseback riding or massages.
 

Envision Payment Solutions, which has a contract with Gwinnett to handle bad check collections, sponsored a comedy magician who performed during an hour-and-a-half lunch at the conference in June. Tyler Technologies, a software provider for Fulton’s and DeKalb’s tax offices, sponsored a campfire dinner and hayride on the final night.

   Businesses pay $500 per year to be TC Tech members, and $250 to attend the conference.

   Steele said the only way counties can benefit from new technology is to understand how it works, and that means meeting with the people who sell it.

   “You need them as much as they need you,” he said.

   Perry, of Common Cause, said the jaunts probably wouldn’t sit well with most taxpayers.

   “It adds to the pay-to-play problem, the perception that county vendors have to pony up for things like that to get a contract,” he said.

 

Thousands of dollars apiece

   Last year, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand took his top five subordinates to the conference — all of his staffers earning six-figure salaries.

   The county’s cost was $6,600, expense records show, which included Ferdinand’s request for a $169 per night room with a private balcony instead of a regular room at $139 a night.

   Ferdinand’s expense reports show he spent more than $8,000 for himself and five others when the TC Tech conference was at the King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort in St. Simons in 2011.

   He wouldn’t consent to an interview about the issue, and his 2013 expenses were not immediately available.

   Steele took four employees in 2012 and seven this year, nearly doubling the cost to $6,900, according to his office. Cobb Tax Commissioner Gail Downing doubled her cost this year to about $3,600 by paying for four people to attend instead of two.

   DeKalb’s Claudia Lawson couldn’t make it this year, but she sent four people, also spending about $3,600.

   Steve Ellis, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, said local governments should seek webinar training before spending thousands of dollars on out-of-town trips, especially governments with falling revenues.
 

“To retain public confidence, they need to make sure these people are learning something and not just working on their golf game,” Ellis said.

CONTRIBUTED BY BRUNSWICK & GOLDEN ISLES CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU
CONTRIBUTED BY BRASSTOWN VALLEY RESORT 
Fulton tax chief Arthur Ferdinand’s expenses show he spent more than $8,000 on himself and five others when TC Tech was at the King & Prince Beach and Golf Resort (left) in St. Simons in 2011. He spent about $6,600 when it was at Brasstown Valley Resort (right) in 2012.
Top places to play

   At Brasstown, the sprawling lodge building overlooks an 18-hole championship golf course, which Golf Digest has ranked as one of the top places to play in Georgia. This year’s conference started Sunday evening with a fajita dinner sponsored by another contractor, Appalachian Mountain Services. The agenda showed that Tuesday afternoon was open for attendees to golf, play tennis, fish, kayak and ride horses.

   In previous years, conferences were at St. Simons. The King and Prince overlooks the Atlantic and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Readers of Southern Living once voted it Georgia’s favorite beach resort. It also has an 18-hole golf course built over an 18th-century cotton, indigo and rice plantation.

   The conference has also been at Lake Lanier, Stone Mountain and Callaway Gardens near Columbus, according to TC Tech Executive Director Katherine Meyer, formerly Gwinnett’s tax commissioner.

   “I’m cheap,” Meyer said. “I’m always looking for deals,

  so I’m looking for someone that’s going to work with us and not charge for everything.”

   Golf seems to be a priority for commissioners, based on documents the AJC obtained.

   In 2009, Ferdinand and other tax commissioners met at Legacy Lodge at Lake Lanier to plan their next conference. A group email announcing the meeting posted three topics they had already discussed. Among them: “We talked about lowering the fees to play golf for next year,” the May 28 email says.

Beyond the minimum

   The TC Tech conferences do provide some training hours required by state law — but required only for tax commissioners and deputy commissioners.

   And there are plenty of chances to rack up the needed 15 hours at the annual Georgia Association of Tax Officials conference in Athens, and meetings of the Constitutional Officers’ Association of Georgia, in Savannah.

   Steele said he has higher standards for himself and his staff than to do just the minimum. GATO addresses what the job is, he said, and TC Tech addresses how to get that job done in a large county.

   “I don’t see how you could argue against me training my staff,” he said. “That’s for the benefit of the county.”

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(From the AJC)  YOUR TAX MONEY

Dispute to cost taxpayers

Fulton to pay legal fees for tax chief; commissioner sues, alleges retaliation. By Johnny Edwards jredwards@ajc.com   

Fulton County taxpayers have already been funding a take-home SUV for Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, the state’s highest-paid elected official.

Now they’re paying for his lawyer, too, at a price of $275 an hour.
The county is hiring a private attorney to defend Ferdinand against a lawsuit filed by north Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who alleges he abused his authority and re taliated against her by revoking the license plate on a 2004 Jeep that her daughter drives. Three weeks earlier, she had publicly questioned why the county pays for his commute, considering his yearly earnings of nearly $350,000.

Documents obtained in a joint effort by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News show Ferdinand went after Hausmann more aggressively than his office does other residents accused of registering vehicles in the wrong county. He gave her less time to set matters straight before he canceled her registration and informed law enforcement that the Jeep had no valid tag.

And he has yet to provide evidence of the anonymous tip that he says prompted him to look into the commissioner’s residency. Nor has he explained what channel the tip came through, other than telling Channel 2 that it wasn’t by email.

Such details could be crucial. At issue in the lawsuit is whether he singled out Hausmann for harsh treatment, or if he was just doing his job.

The dispute involves power, accountability and use of public resources, and now it’s cutting into county finances, possibly by tens of thousands of dollars. Commissioners approved paying for an outside counsel to represent Ferdinand earlier this month in a closed meeting without Hausmann present.

The county paid for Ferdinand’s defense in the early 2000s when then-Commission Chairman Mike Kenn sued him, alleging political revenge when the tax chief tried to close two north Fulton restaurants by claiming Kenn owed $26,000 in excise taxes for underreporting alcohol sales.
Legal expenses in that case topped $120,000.

"I think he should have to pay his own legal fees," Hausmann told the AJC. "I have to pay my own legal fees."

The county could be further on the hook if she prevails. Hausmann said she’s seeking only to be paid back for legal bills and the rental car her daughter used before Ferdinand finally reinstated the tag. The sum is currently about $18,500, she said.

"I just feel like citizens don’t deserve to be treated like this," she said. "It was a frivolous matter that had no basis in fact and no merit, and unfortunately it has cost me resources to defend it."
Ferdinand has not responded to numerous requests for comment from the AJC about the issue, and he did not respond to a list of questions or to an interview request for this story sent to him by Channel 2.

Ferdinand’s new attorney, Marietta lawyer Randy Turner, said in emails Friday to the AJC and Channel 2 that "the claims against Dr. Ferdinand are without merit."

"This will be established in due course in the Superior Court," Turner said. "Dr. Ferdinand has acted only as he is authorized by law to act in carrying out the responsibilities of his office."

The Ferdinand-Hausmann feud started in early May when, during a review of a routine take-home vehicle report dur ing a public meeting, she questioned why the tax commissioner appeared on the list. Through an open records request, the AJC learned that he dipped into his own department’s funds to buy a $39,000 Ford Explorer Limited — a higher-grade model than the one listed on the take-home report.

Ferdinand later circulated a memo suggesting Hausmann may actually live in Gwinnett County, making her ineligible for office. He cited an out-of-date address on both her campaign disclosure forms and on her vehicle registration. The tax on the vehicle, he said, was paid with a check bearing a Gwinnett address.

Hausmann responded that she moved in with her sister and brother-in-law in Johns Creek because she is going through a divorce, and with that and her father’s recent death she forgot to update her address. Her daughter paid the registration renewal with a check bearing her father’s address, Hausmann said.

Ferdinand eventually reinstated the tag after Hausmann gave him a document from the county elections office showing her new address.
Jim Honkisz, the interim president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foun dation, said he agrees with paying for Ferdinand’s defense, since he is being sued in his official capacity. But if Hausmann proves he acted beyond his authority, Ferdinand should reimburse the county, Honkisz said.

Channel 2 filed an open records request for any instances since January 2011 when the tax office revoked or suspended license plates as a result of its own investigations. The county provided letters and memos from 17 cases where residents had questionable auto registrations.
The documents show Hausmann’s case may be the only time in the past 2½ years that the tax office pursued someone with a Fulton tag suspected of living elsewhere.

Typically, the records show, Ferdinand’s office finds people claiming to live in Fulton, or businesses based in Fulton, who have vehicles registered in other counties. He then demands they pay up — either the vehicle taxes or reimbursement for years of undeserved homestead exemptions, which are tax breaks for those who live at their properties.

While the letters show other taxpayers have been given between 11 days and two months to settle the matters, Ferdinand gave Hausmann just seven days to prove she still lived in Fulton, which her attorney, Josh Belinfante, says was an arbi trary deadline with no basis in law.
"I think it confirms a lot of the concerns that we had," said Belinfante, a former member of the state ethics commission. "Here you’ve got apparently what is the only situation where he’s telling someone, ‘We don’t want your money.’ "

Tax officials in other counties say such situations come up, brought to their attention by tips from residents, their own observations or other counties that conduct homestead exemption audits. None, however, said they would take such swift, Draconian measures, and that revoking a tag would be done only as a last resort.

Dan Ray, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials and Rockdale County’s former tax commissioner, said if he found people living elsewhere but paying Rockdale’s vehicle taxes, he would flag their accounts so they couldn’t register again.

"I don’t know that I would go in and cancel the thing," he said, "but I would go in and put a notation on there."

IN-DEPTH COVERAGE

 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has uncovered problems stemming from the sale of tax debts to private collection firms by the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office, putting residents at risk of losing their homes and giving millions in potential profits to the biggest lien buyer, with a direct loss to taxpayers. Previous articles have shown how Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has become the state’s highest-paid elected official through personal fees from tax collections in Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs.

=======================================================

Sic semper tyrannis


While Counts 1-4 of the May 27th, 7 Count complaint appear moot with Ferdinands backing down within 48 hours and reinstating the vehicle registration, there remain 3 other Counts for the Court to consider


Clearly Count 7, which deals with costs, will be decided in favor of Hausmann. Counts 5 and 6 are more appropirate for an ethics complaint and relevant quotes are:

"Ferdinand's retaliation against Hausmann, under color of law and his authority as Fulton County Tax Commissioner, violates Hausmann's substantive due process guarantee against government power artitrarily and oppressively exercised."


and also:
  "OCA 45-11-4 imposes a duty on public officers not to use 'oppression or tyrannical partiality in the administration or under the color of his or her office'."

Clearly Counts 5 & 6 will be used to show Ferdinand mis-used his office to settle a personal matter against a County Commissioner but such allegations, butressed with some of his other egregious actions, may well show up in an ethics complaint.

In this instance they will provide impetus for the judge to award the asked for costs to Hausmann.


Keep in mind the terms: 'Malfeasance' and 'Misfeasance' you may see them again this summer.

The 7 Count complaint runs 63 pages, inclusive of extensive exhibits, and you can view it at:
http://pdfserver.amlaw.com/dailyreport/Editorial/PDF/Hausmanncomplaint.pdf
 


Hausmann 1 - Ferdinand 0

Fulton tax chief reinstates critic’s auto tag

Updated: 7:18 p.m. Wednesday, May 29, 2013 
(Tax chief relents in car tag spat)
By Johnny Edwards  The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Link:   http://www.myajc.com/news/news/local-govt-politics/fulton-tax-chief-reinstates-critics-auto-tag/nX6TQ/?icmp=ajc_internallink_textlink_apr2013_ajcstubtomyajc_launch


A struggle over power and accountability between the Fulton County tax chief and a north Fulton commissioner took another turn Wednesday.

Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand reinstated the auto registration on a 2004 Jeep driven by Commissioner Liz Hausmann’s 24-year-old daughter, meaning she can use it again without fear of arrest.


With her daughter out of the fray, the dispute is now between Hausmann and Ferdinand. Hausmann is still suing him for attorney’s fees and unspecified damages, citing abuse of power and retaliation. She claims Ferdinand revoked the Jeep’s license plate because he was angry at her for calling attention to his own county take-home vehicle — an upscale SUV purchased at taxpayers’ expense.

"It is unfortunate that this matter has escalated to the point of a lawsuit," Hausmann said in a written statement, "and I am hopeful that other Fulton County residents will not be subjected to similar undue scrutiny."



Ferdinand did not immediately answer an email Wednesday, and an assistant said he was out of the office. He has not responded to numerous requests for comment from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution during the past month, though he told Channel 2 Action News earlier this month that he was not retaliating against Hausmann, just responding to a tip that she no longer lived in her district.

The two officials will no longer face off in Superior Court on Friday. Hausmann sought a temporary restraining order to force Ferdinand to reinstate the car tag, but her attorney, Josh Belinfante, said he backed off when she gave him a document from the county elections office showing her new Johns Creek address.

The chain of events began earlier this month when Hausmann questioned why the county should pay for Ferdinand’s commute, considering he’s the state’s highest-paid elected official with nearly $350,000 in yearly earnings. Through an open records request, the AJC learned that he dipped into his own department’s funds to buy a $39,000 Ford Explorer Limited.

Ferdinand later circulated a memo suggesting Hausmann may actually live in Gwinnett County, making her ineligible for office. He cited an out-of-date address on both her campaign disclosure forms and on her vehicle registration. The tax on the vehicle, he said, was paid with a check bearing a Gwinnett address.

Hausmann responded that she moved because she is going through a divorce, and with that and her father’s recent death she forgot to update her address. Her daughter paid the registration renewal with a check bearing her father’s address, Hausmann said.

Saying Hausmann still hadn’t proved she lives in Fulton, Ferdinand revoked the Jeep’s license plate last week and informed county law enforcement that the car had no valid tag, according to an internal memo.

Checks with other tax commissioners’ offices in the metro area found license plate revocations over residency questions to be rare. A spokeswoman for Gwinnett’s tax chief said he would not invalidate a registration for that reason.

This isn’t the first time Ferdinand has been accused of retaliating against a Northside commissioner who questioned his practices. In 2000, he tried to close two north Fulton restaurants owned by then-Chairman Mike Kenn, claiming Kenn owed $26,000 in excise taxes for underreporting alcohol sales.

The year before, Kenn had alerted the FBI about a taxpayer’s complaint of how Ferdinand’s office handled a $30,000 property tax refund, which mistakenly went to the wrong company out of state.

Ferdinand denied retaliation, saying the audits of Kenn’s bars were routine. Kenn sued, then later agreed to pay $8,000 in beverage taxes to settle the matter.


 
In-depth coverage 

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has uncovered problems stemming from the sales of tax debts to private collection firms by the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office. Previous articles described how homeowners didn’t know they owed overdue taxes until their homes were being auctioned and they owed thousands of dollars in penalties and interest to settle what started as small bills.

Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has also taken heat for being the state’s highest-paid elected official through personal fees from tax collections in Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs. State lawmakers have tried in vain to end the practice, saying that he’s earning extra money using the county’s labor, equipment and materials.
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Tax Commissioner and bully Dr Ferdinand gets sued by Hausmann

The highest paid Government official in Georgia (at $347,000) is Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, a Democrat and Black. 

He makes enemies easily. Seems he may have his own Nixionian enemies list which keeps growing.

Not surprisingly it involves a lot of White Republicans who object to his using his elected position to coin money for himself, recieving his own substantial salary and also taking advantage of extremely questionable fees and for the sale of Tax Liens to Vesta Holdings *, frequently using them for such lien purchases and reportedly denying sales to other similar firms who are available and wish to make such purchases. 


(* Vesta Holdings Rated by the BBB as 'F'
1737-G Ellsworth Industrial Blvd., Atlanta, GA 30318  http://www.vestaholdings.com/vesta/contactus.asp)


 The most recent criticisms about his conduct revolve around his office's purchase of a top of the line $39,000, Ford Explorer, Limited Edition, for Ferdinand's personal use as a take home vehicle. Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, and a lot of others, criticized this misuse of taxpayer funds.

In an obvious retaliation Ferdinand made a bogus complaint to the County Attorney alleging that Hausmann did not live in the County. This is the 2nd time this year that he has used his position to take a shot at Hausmann.   Now Commissioner Hausmann has taken the offensive and filed the below suit against Ferdinand for his latest bit of stupidity.

 
The Ferdinand/Hausmann conflict goes back as far as 2001 when Ferdinand sold a Tax Lien for $52 on property of County Commissioner Liz Hausmann.


Other critics of his cozy relationship with Vesta Holdings have found that they had tax liens placed on their Fulton County properties for trivial amounts (as low

as $21) and many claim that no notice was ever given to them about any late taxes before finding themselves liened by Ferdinand's office.

The 'enemies list' clearly includes the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which has effectively been 'at war' with Ferdinand for years. While a relatively small part of the Cox Empire*, the AJC is the largest of the Cox publications and Ferdinand has repeatedly gone after Cox properties in Fulton County with mostly minor tax liens sold to his pals at Vesta Holdings.

In this chicken and egg drama there is no clear winner and the 'war' continues while the AJC keeps up their articles about Ferdinand and the Tax Office and Ferdinand watches for any opportunity to lien another Cox property or the property of anyone else his considers a threat to his Tax Office kingdom.

I have seen enough reports of Ferdinands' conduct over the past few years to come to the conclusion that he is a bully, misuses his office and will use his position to retaliate or embarrass those who question his ethics or try to pass needed legislation to curb his abuse of the lien process in Fulton County. The relationship between Ferdinand and Vesta Holdings needs to be looked into, it just smells bad. Real bad.

The terms 'Malfeasance' and Misfeasance' come to mind.  This ethics lapse is something the Governor should be taking up.


(*Cox Media Group is in 17 markets.  In Atlanta they own: 
AJC Newspaper, WSB 95.5FM and AM750 News/Talk WSB, WSB-TV - Channel 2, WSB-FM B98.5FM, WALR - KISS 104.1FM, WSRV - 97.1FM)


It is well past time for this out of control bully to get an ass kicking. Hopefully this suit will do the trick.

The 6 Count complaint runs 63 pages, inclusive of extensive exhibits, and you can view it at: 
http://pdfserver.amlaw.com/dailyreport/Editorial/PDF/Hausmanncomplaint.pdf




Per the AJC - the story so far
August – Funds from the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office are used to buy an SUV for use by Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand.

May 1 – Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann questions Ferdinand’s need for a Ford Explorer XLT after it appears on a list of the county’s take-home vehicles.

May 10 – The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, through an open records request, obtains the purchase order for the vehicle, which turns out to be a higher grade of the model, a Ford Explorer Limited. The price was $39,000.

May 13 – Ferdinand sends a memo to the interim county attorney and county commissioners, citing a tip, that says Hausmann may not live in Fulton County. The house that Hausmann had listed as her address on campaign documents had been sold, and a check used to pay for the registration of a vehicle in her name bears a Gwinnett County address. Hausmann says she neglected to update her address because she is going through a divorce and recently dealt with the illness and death of her father. The vehicle’s registration renewal was paid for by Hausmann’s daughter, who drives it, using a check bearing her father’s address.

May 16 – Ferdinand denies retaliating against Hausmann and says he needs the SUV to drive to meetings, public appearances and his satellite offices. He also says he will not consider giving up the vehicle unless told to do so by the whole commission.

May 25 – Hausmann seeks a restraining order and after learning that Ferdinand has revoked the tag on the vehicle registered in her name.


=========================================================

Fulton County Commissioner Hausmann Files Suit Against Arthur Ferdinand


2:00 pm, May 24th, 2013
Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann filed a lawsuit today in Superior Court against the county’s tax commissioner, Arthur Ferdinand, alleging retaliation.

Hausmann has publicly called for an investigation into Ferdinand’s tax lien sales, which opponents say may have deprived the county of revenue and property owners of adequate time to pay their debts, and has rebuked Ferdinand’s use of a county-paid vehicle.

Hausmann’s attorney, Josh Belinfante, jbelinfante@robbinsfirm.com, a partner at Robbins Ross Alloy Belinfante Littlefield and former ethics commissioner, said Ferdinand is disputing Hausmann’s vehicle registration and threatening to revoke the license of Hausmann’s car, which is used by her daughter.

“Defendant, without authority, has revoked the registration, even though all taxes due have been timely paid, ostensibly because Hausmann failed to provide proof of her place of residence to Ferdinand’s satisfaction,” the complaint states. “In reality, Ferdinand revoked Hausmann’s vehicle registration in retaliation for a recent inquiry by Hausmann regarding Ferdinand’s personal use of a county vehicle.”


Ferdinand was not available for comment. An attorney for him was not listed on the complaint.

Hausmann is seeking a temporary restraining order halting the revocation of her vehicle registration and injunctive relief ordering Ferdinand to reinstate her car tag. She is also seeking unspecified damages.

The case is Hausmann v. Ferdinand, Case No. 2103CV231746

full article found at:  http://www.atlawblog.com/2013/05/fulton-county-commissioner-hausmann-files-suit-against-arthur-ferdinand/comment-page-1/#comment-81681

====================================================================

Fulton commissioner says tax chief revoked car tag in retaliation
 
Posted: 6:34 p.m. Friday, May 24, 2013

By Johnny Edwards - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

She messed with his car, so now Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has messed with hers, a county commissioner alleged in court documents Friday.
It began when north Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausmann publicly questioned why taxpayers are funding a $39,000 Ford Explorer Limited for the state’s highest-paid elected official. Then Ferdinand sent a letter to the interim county attorney and county commissioners suggesting that she may live in Gwinnett County, which would make her ineligible for office.

Now Ferdinand has revoked the license plate on a 2004 Jeep in Hausmann’s name, which her daughter drives, and alerted law enforcement that the car has no valid tag, according to an interoffice memo. The tax commissioner said Hausmann still hasn’t given him valid proof that she lives in Fulton
.
In court documents asking a Superior Court judge to put a stop to the action, Hausmann accused Ferdinand of retaliation, "tyrannical partiality" and violating her right to free speech. The Jeep is parked now because anyone who drives it could be arrested, her attorney said.

"I consider this escalation to be harassment to not only me, but also my family," Hausmann said in a written statement.
Ferdinand did not immediately respond to emails or a phone call seeking comment Friday, nor has he responded to several other similar requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this month.

In a recent interview with the AJC’s news partner, Channel 2 Action News, the tax commissioner denied retaliating against Hausmann, saying he sent the memo to the interim county attorney after receiving a tip from a constituent and after the Jeep’s registration renewal was paid two weeks late with a check bearing a Gwinnett address.

Ferdinand told Channel 2 he did not recall what channel he received the tip through. The AJC filed an open records request seeking any documents connected to the tip, and the county responded that it has no such records.
"On its face, it sure looks like it was retaliation," Jim Honkisz, the interim president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, said Friday. "It underscores the lack of sensitivity and the pettiness of the tax commissioner."
Through a separate records request, the AJC learned that Ferdinand dipped into his own office budget last year to buy a 2013 Ford Explorer Limited, giving him the newest, most upscale vehicle in Fulton’s fleet of take-home vehicles. The dealer said it has a moon roof, leather seats, built-in navigation and four-wheel drive. The County Commission was not aware of the purchase then because it fell under a $50,000 threshold.

Because the vehicle is part of the county’s fleet, taxpayers also pay for its fuel. Records show the county has paid $1,250 to gas up the SUV since its purchase.

Ferdinand told Channel 2 he needs it to drive to meetings, public appearances and his satellite offices. He said he wouldn’t even consider turning in the SUV, as Commission Chairman John Eaves has asked, unless told to do so by the whole commission.

After a review of a routine take-home vehicle report at a May 1 commission meeting, Hausmann questioned why Ferdinand can’t drive his own car, considering he earns nearly $350,000 per year. Most of his money comes through personal fees charged to Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs for adding their city tax bills to county tax bills.

 State lawmakers have tried and failed to stop him from collecting those fees. Ferdinand’s opponents say he is pocketing money for services done with county staff and equipment.

About a week and a half later, Ferdinand alerted county officials that Hausmann used an out-of-date address on campaign forms and her vehicle registration. Hausmann responded that updating her address slipped her mind because she is going through a divorce and recently dealt with her father’s illness and death.

Her attorney has given Ferdinand an affidavit from her sister and brother-in-law saying she lives with them in Johns Creek, as well as a bank record reflecting the new address.
A hearing on Hausmann’s request for a temporary restraining order could be held as early as Tuesday.

------------------------------------------------------------------------


"Tax Chief Calls Out a Critic"

The AJC article below, by J Edwards, it says in part:

  • "Less than two weeks after a county commissioner questioned his need for a county owned vehicle, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has aired potentially damaging or embarassing tax information about her. It was the second time this year that he has released such information about North Fulton Commissioner Liz Hausman, who first asked why Ferdinand, the state's highest-paid elected official has a $39,000 county owned SUV that allows him to commute to work at taxpayers expense. . .

  • He sent a memo to the interm county attorney and county commissioners this week reporting that Hausmann may not live in her district or even in the county. . .

  • In March, after Hausmann called for an investigation into Ferdinand's tax lien sales that allowed a private company to collect millions of dollars in late fees, Ferdinand sent documents to state lawmakers showing he put a lien against her property for $52 in 2001. . .

  • Dan Davis, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, said ethical issues could be raised if the tax commissioner zeroed in on a potential enemy and dug into her tax records. . .

  • William Perry, executive director of Common Cause Georgia, said he's less concerned with Hausmann failing to update her address than he is with Ferdinand's apparent retaliation. "The timing of it gives the appearance that it's a 'gotcha' complaint," Perry said. "Bottom line, the situation purely sounds like intentionally coming after her for questions that seem like legitimate issues."




The take-home report showed Ferdinand has a Ford Explorer XLT, a midgrade model, but the purchase order revealed it is actually an Explorer Limited, which means he has the newest, most upscale vehicle of any Fulton official who is allowed to take one home.


Posted by Picasa
============================================================

Monday, March 4, 2013
State may target tax lien sales
Fulton tax commissioner says they help schools, local governments
By Johnny Edwards and M.B. Pell

article at: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/state-may-target-tax-lien-sales/nWgFf/

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation has spurred some state lawmakers to try to reel in Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, outraged that his quick sale of tax liens may have deprived the county of up to $20 million.
Fulton County Commissioner Liz Hausmann says the AJC’s findings also warrant an official investigation.

The AJC reported Sunday that Ferdinand sold thousands of property tax liens before the county would have been eligible for a 10 percent penalty. That resulted in the county handing over as much as $20 million in potential profits to a private company that is the biggest lien buyer – with a corresponding $20 million potential loss to the county.

State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, said the AJC’s findings underscore his suspicion that there’s a tight relationship between the tax commissioner and the company.

He and other Fulton County lawmakers say they also have had long-standing concerns about Ferdinand’s process for selling liens.
State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, described the process as abusive. "It’s designed to make sure that people cannot make good on their taxes," Fort said.

Ferdinand has said that lien sales are legal and buyers reap the benefit of penalties and interest because they take the risk of collecting overdue taxes. He wouldn’t comment on potential legislation, saying it would be premature to respond until a final bill is submitted.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------


Tue., May 14, 2013 9:00am (EDT)
 
Fulton Taxpayers Buy Tax Commissioner's SUV
     
By Associated Press
ATLANTA Records show that a Georgia tax commissioner used public funds to buy a full-sized SUV for his own use.

The 2013 Ford Explorer Limited used by Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand cost taxpayers $39,000.


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that residents in the metro Atlanta county are funding Ferdinand's daily commute to work, including gasoline.

The purchase came to light when county commissioners raised questions about a routine take-home vehicle report.

Ferdinand did not respond to the Journal-Constitution's phone messages or questions emailed to him Monday.

=====================================

Updated: 8:41 p.m. Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tax commissioner's SUV costs taxpayers $39,000
The Associated Press

ATLANTA —

Records show that a Georgia tax commissioner used public funds to buy a full-sized SUV for his own use.

The 2013 Ford Explorer Limited used by Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand cost taxpayers $39,000, according to a report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (http://bit.ly/YS9zDN ).

The newspaper reported that residents in the metro Atlanta county are funding Ferdinand's daily commute to work, including gasoline. The purchase came to light when county commissioners raised questions about a routine take-home vehicle report.

Ferdinand did not respond to the Journal-Constitution's phone messages or questions emailed to him Monday.

Ferdinand has been the focus of criticism in the past, some of it related to an annual income that exceeds that of Gov. Nathan Deal and approaches the pay for President Barack Obama.

A key factor behind his earnings is a charge of $1 per parcel in fees for doing the tax billing for Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs — a practice state legislators have tried to halt. Ferdinand's opponents say he is pocketing money for services done with county staff and equipment.

Criticism has intensified with the revelation of Ferdinand's latest auto purchase.

"Greed is the only word I can think of," Midtown resident Carol Brantley said. "Most people realize that Fulton County and all governments are struggling with their budgets and looking for ways to cut expenses, not ways to increase their personal incomes at the expense of taxpayers."

But Commissioner Tom Lowe, a Republican who represents a portion of north Fulton, defended Ferdinand, a Democrat, as "a high-ranking department head" who "makes more money for the county than anybody else."

"If he wants a car," Lowe said, "I don't give a damn whether it's a go-kart or a Cadillac."

Chairman John Eaves said Ferdinand has not explained to commissioners why he needs the SUV and it's questionable whether it allows him to do a better job.

Eaves said Ferdinand should consider reassigning the SUV to an employee or department that can make better use of it.

"Given the budgetary constraints and the public's expectations that we be as thrifty as possible," Eaves said, "to me, this is an unnecessary expense."

From:  http://www.ajc.com/ap/ap/georgia/tax-commissioners-suv-costs-taxpayers-39000/nXqg3/

==========================================================

Fulton Tax Commissioner Defends Use of $39,000 Vehicle  By Michelle Wirth 90.1 FM WABE

Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand spoke with WABE in his first radio interview since controversy surrounding a $39,000 dollar county vehicle he purchased for county use began earlier this month.

Concerns about the 2013 Ford Explorer purchased by Ferdinand last year for his official use were raised by Commission Chairman John Eaves and Commissioner Liz Hausmann. Both commissioners questioned the vehicle’s expense after examining a routine take home vehicle report. Despite the concerns, Ferdinand says he’s done nothing wrong. He says the opinions expressed by Chairman Eaves and Commissioner Hausmann don’t represent the feelings of the entire board.

"The board of commissioners have approved the use of a vehicle for that office, tax commissioner, since 1998. It meets all the county guidelines, and as recently as this year my vehicle has been approved for take home purposes. "

Ferdinand says he and members of his staff only use the vehicle for county purposes.

"I do a lot of things besides sit in my office and collect money. I have a very long county, I have five offices, I speak a lot at night, and I would say that I do not use that vehicle for my personal use. I have several vehicles myself."
Chairman Eaves says Ferdinand did not violate any county policies but he’s concerned about public perception due to the expense of the vehicle. As a result, Eaves says he’s hoping to meet with Ferdinand and plans to ask him to reassign his vehicle to another department.

"He’s doing a great job in terms of his duties, but the issue of the public trust in terms of our resources is out there, so let’s try to figure out some sort of resolution so we can restore the public trust, that were doing the best we can in terms of managing our resources and being as frugal as possible.
Ferdinand says he will sit down with Eaves if asked, but as far as giving up the vehicle..
.
"At this point in time no. There’s no reason why I would consider not using that vehicle in the way we’re using it right now."

Chairman Eaves says the board of commissioners should also reexamine its current policy when it comes to county take home vehicles.

Article and voice link at:  http://www.wabe.org/post/fulton-tax-commissioner-defends-use-39000-vehicle

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Contact Info for the Fulton County Commissioners:

john.eaves@fultoncountyga.gov 
robb.pitts@fultoncountyga.gov 
tom.lowe@fultoncountyga.gov
liz.hausmann@fultoncountyga.gov
emma.darnell@fultoncountyga.gov
joan.garner@fultoncountyga.gov
commissioner.edwards@fultoncountyga.gov
 
 
------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Fulton tax commissioner goes nuclear on AJC, state reps

Posted by
Thomas WheatleyHYPERLINK "http://www.twitter.com/thomaswheatley"@thomaswheatley

Wed, Mar 6, 2013 at 3:25 PM

Over the last few days, the AJC published several pieces about Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand transferring tax liens to third parties.

They're interesting stories, and part of a multi-year series of articles about metro Atlanta property taxes that have scrutinized Ferdinand. The pieces serve a public good while also making homeowners grit their teeth with anger. Anti-Fulton state lawmakers will probably pick up the articles and use them as ammunition in their ongoing effort to crack down on the county. That includes legislation making the tax commissioner an appointed, not elected position.

That legislation and the recent AJC stories apparently didn't sit well with Ferdinand. This morning, CL was cc'ed on an email from the tax commissioner. Attached were scanned copies of letters to state Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, and state Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, who chair the Fulton County legislative delegation under the Gold Dome.
In the letters (which we've embedded after the jump), Ferdinand says discussions about his salary - he reportedly made nearly $350,000 in 2011, making him Georgia's highest-paid elected official - have devolved into attacks on his character, which he claims is a "clear indication that this campaign for 'change and reform' solely directed at my office is more of a personal agenda, rather than a public one." He then claims that some of the actions by the AJC and state lawmakers are "simply retaliatory."
He goes on to say that the AJC failed to disclose in its articles that the commissioner's office has placed several liens in past years on properties owned by Cox Enterprises, the paper's parent company, and which were transferred to Vesta Holdings. Among those properties, Ferdinand says, was a "luxury hanger" at Fulton County Airport-Brown Field. He also notes that Cox Enterprises is the beneficiary of development authority exemptions, "a privilege usually reserved for new companies coming into the county, a practice now being challenged." Ferdinand says the exemptions helped Cox save more than $2 million in taxes. (I'm curious why Ferdinand didn't lob these accusations in an op-ed that appeared in the AJC a few days ago. We asked and will update if we hear word.

UPDATE, 10:54 p.m. Ferdinand tells me he hadn't seen the liens at the time.)
 
He also claims that sponsors of the legislation have, in the past, had liens placed on their properties or transferred by Ferdinand's office for non-payment of taxes.
We asked AJC Managing Editor Bert Roughton if the paper knew about the alleged conflict of interest prior to publishing the articles. He said in an email to CL that the paper started looking into the liens issue "as a matter of important public interest."

"Delving deeply into the manner in which public officials conduct their affairs is essential to what we do and in the best traditions of American journalism," he wrote. "To suggest that we were motivated by anything else is absurd and a distraction from the important questions raised by our reporting. We knew nothing about our parent company's property taxes one way or the other."

Ferdinand closed his letters with the hopes that everyone involved can return to "civil and intelligent discourse about public policy regarding taxes." We'll see if that happens - or if the missive only spurred the majority Republican delegation into taking action. We're reaching out to Riley and Hill to get their take on Ferdinand's letter.

UPDATE, 11:54 p.m. Roughton notes in an email that the paper has written about these issues "long before December 2010." That's around the date the lien was placed on Cox Enterprises' "luxury hanger" and when Ferdinand says the AJC's Open Records requests started arriving in his office.


See article at: http://clatl.com/freshloaf/archives/2013/03/06/fulton-tax-commissioner-goes-nuclear-on-ajc-state-reps

--------------------------------------------------------------

Fulton tax chief may face pay cut
by Johnny Edwards

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Because of a loophole in a state law -- and by personally collecting fees for billing taxes in three cities -- Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand has become the state's highest-paid elected official.Taking in $347,000 last year, Ferdinand's earnings approached the level of the U.S. president.

Six north Fulton legislators say it's time he took a massive pay cut -- and some residents agree.

Ferdinand, though, says he earns his money, taking on the massive responsibility of collecting property taxes for the state's largest and sixth-largest cities, which he's not required by law to do.

"You shouldn't expect people to do additional work and not get paid," he said.

A bill introduced this legislative session by state Rep. Lynne Riley, co-sponsored by five of her fellow Northside Republicans, aims to end the personal payments by removing Ferdinand and all Georgia tax commissioners from negotiating tables when cities want county governments to handle their tax bills.

The issue shines a spotlight on how revenue totaling hundreds of millions of dollars is collected. That money is used to fund police, fire protection, parks, road paving and other services for more than a half million people.

The legislation would also apply to DeKalb Tax Commissioner Claudia Lawson, who collects fees from nine cities, including Chamblee, Dunwoody and the DeKalb portion of Atlanta.

Last year, Lawson earned more than $237,000.

Tax commissioners in Cobb and Gwinnett, meanwhile, don't collect fees.

So how were Ferdinand and Lawson able to earn so much money?

Answering that question requires a better understanding of Georgia's old way of doing things.

Throwback to fee system
There was a time when constitutional officers, such as sheriffs, probate judges and clerks of court, earned their pay by personally collecting fines and fees.In a throwback to that fee system, some county tax commissioners collect tax money for cities that don't want to do it themselves.

Those cities not only pay the county for the services, but they also pay a personal fee to the tax commissioner.

Last year, for instance, in addition to paying the county $2.76 million, Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs paid Ferdinand a personal fee of $1 per parcel.Those personal fees alone totaled $212,624.

In DeKalb County, Lawson collected a total of $50,000 in personal fees from the cities of Atlanta and Dunwoody -- and $31,260 more in personal fees from seven other cities.

State Rep. Wendell Willard, who serves as Sandy Springs' city attorney, tried to end the practice five years ago.

But Ferdinand and others were able to continue to collect the fees because of pre-existing contracts.

The new bill, which Willard is co-sponsoring, would close that loophole.

Cities could cancel their contracts with tax commissioners, then negotiate with county commissions on new pay arrangements.

Only counties could collect the money, which would be "substantially approximate" to the actual cost of doing the work.

That means the personal fees collected by the tax commissioners would end.

Fulton's help needed?
Though nine Fulton cities handle their own billing, Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs all believe they need Fulton's help.

To do it any other way, they say, would actually cost their taxpayers more money, likely with lesser returns.

After all, Ferdinand's office has staff and software in place, boasts a 99 percent collection rate thanks to his system of selling tax liens to private collection firms, and can send residents a single bill for both county and city property taxes.

In Lawson's case, the practice, she said, started with her predecessor, Tom Scott. As tax commissioner, she takes on personal liability if cities' billings are flawed, she said.

But Riley sees it differently.

"The intent is to protect taxpayers who live in cities from double taxation," Riley said. "I don't believe any public officials should receive personal fees. The county is actually providing the resources, through the manpower and the technology."

Lawson doesn't have strong feelings if legislation were to bring the payments to an end, she said. Ferdinand said he doesn't feel as if he is overcompensated.

"With respects to the merits of the bill, I'll deal with it when it's passed," he said.

Jackson County Tax Commissioner Donald Elrod, president of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, is concerned, though, that a group of Fulton lawmakers trying to cut Ferdinand's pay might set bad policy statewide.

Elrod said the law would give county commissions power to order constitutional officers to take on outside work, which his association opposes.

"It's Willard going after [Ferdinand]," Elrod said, "and it's hurting some of our smaller counties."

But Major Thompson, a 27-year Johns Creek resident, said an official profiting from taxes just "doesn't smell right."

Fulton tax chief's earnings

In addition to his regular county pay, Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand personally collects $1 per parcel for handling taxes for three cities. Other tax commissioners do that, too, but Ferdinand reaps higher returns because he handles the state's largest, sixth-largest and 10th-largest cities. Here's what he earned last year:

-- County pay: $134,440 (including supplement pay)

-- Atlanta fees: $154,726-- Sandy Springs fees: $31,428

-- Johns Creek fees: $26,470

Source: Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek finance offices; Fulton County personnel office

Elected officials' pay
-- President Barack Obama: $400,000

-- Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand: $347,064

-- DeKalb County Tax Commissioner Claudia Lawson: $237,290

-- Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein: $167,210

-- Gov. Nathan Deal: $139,339

See article at: http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/fulton-tax-chief-may-face-pay-cut/nQQ4g/

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Taxpayers’ loss is lien buyer’s gain
+Taxpayers’ loss is lien buyer’s gain photo

BRANT SANDERLIN / BSANDERLIN@AJ            












By Johnny Edwards and M.B. Pell - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
                                                                       
Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand offers a sweet investment opportunity — but one that since 2002 has cost county taxpayers up to $20 million.

He sells property tax liens that entitle the investor to earn a potential 10 percent return in as little as one day – on top of a potential annual return of 12 percent.

If Ferdinand would wait a little longer to sell the liens, the county would collect the 10 percent. Over the past 11 years, that could have generated as much as $20 million that might have gone to libraries, health services and funding the courts in Fulton County.

Instead, the opportunity to collect almost all of that money went to one private company: Vesta Holdings.

When taxes are 30 days late, tax commissioners can file liens — a legal claim — on the properties. If taxes are 90 days delinquent, state law allows an extra 10 percent penalty on the total amount owed. But rather than hold on to liens for 90 days so the county can collect the 10 percent, Ferdinand has sold many early – some a day or two before the extra payment would kick in, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found in an analysis of tax bill data.

The analysis raises other questions about how Ferdinand conducts liens sales and about his relationship with Vesta, the office’s largest purchaser of tax liens. In at least one instance, the AJC found, the tax commissioner sold liens to Vesta shortly before telling other potential buyers none were for sale.

Critics, including legislators, have long raised concerns about the lien sales and about the tax commissioner’s ties with Vesta. Ferdinand — who is responsible for collecting taxes for the county, five Fulton cities and two school districts — has repeatedly dismissed allegations of special treatment and assured the public that the program was benefiting them.

He refused all interview requests, but in response to written questions from the AJC he wrote that the lien sales are legal, and lien buyers reap the benefit of penalties and interest because they take the risk of collecting overdue taxes.

“Vesta receives no favoritism by our office in any manner,” Ferdinand wrote. Companies that buy liens save the taxpayers money by removing the burden of collecting delinquent taxes from the county, he wrote. The lien buyer, he has often noted, pays the tax bill in full.

“The responsibility of the tax commissioner is to optimize the collection of taxes, not to maximize the amount of taxes collected,” he wrote.

But if Ferdinand is allowing potential revenue to slip into the pockets of private collection companies, that’s outrageous, said County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, a Johns Creek Republican.

“And I would think that would warrant some kind of official investigation,” Hausmann said.

State Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, said she was disturbed to hear that the early sale of liens benefits a private vendor instead of county taxpayers. “This is unacceptable in many ways,” she said. “You can understand, now, why we’ve been concerned about many of the practices taking place in that office.”

Vesta, which also declined interviews and responded only in writing, says that the AJC’s calculation is “seriously misleading” because many taxpayers pay their bills before Vesta is legally allowed to impose the 10 percent penalty. But in response to a follow-up question, Robert Proctor, the company’s attorney, said Vesta does not know how many property owners paid their bill before the 90-day penalty because the company “does not maintain those sorts of statistics.”

Ferdinand and Vesta both say that the quick sale of the liens is a financial advantage to the county and cities, even without the 10 percent penalty, because the governments receive the money in their current fiscal year. Ferdinand said that allows the county to pay an annual bond before the due date: Dec. 31.

But that doesn’t explain why Ferdinand sold thousands of 2009 and 2011 tax liens to Vesta within the 90-day window, but after Dec. 31.

Dan Davis, the executive director of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, said he understands there is value to collecting early, but he said there is also value to the county in collecting the penalty and interest.

“If they don’t collect it until March, that’s a 13 percent return and that’s not too bad,” Davis said. “Where else could you have made 13 percent return on your money?”

SUBHEAD

Ferdinand became tax collector in 1997 and is now the state’s highest-paid elected official, earning more than $348,000 last year. The sale of liens has boosted his tax collection rate, which he has touted each time he has been challenged at the polls. He easily won re-election last year.

Under state law, Ferdinand has almost complete autonomy over the sale of tax liens that his office files, with little to no oversight of the process.

Ferdinand wrote that the process is transparent and that everyone who wants to acquire liens is provided with the same information at the same time. But some tax lien buyers describe the process as convoluted and subject to change from month to month, stoking suspicions about favoritism.

Even finding out when liens are available for sale can be difficult.

At 9:44 a.m. last Dec. 13, Terry Noble, a tax administrator with the Fulton tax commissioner’s office, announced the availability of thousands of 2012 Atlanta tax liens in an email he sent to Vesta and four other lien buyers. He told the five to hand in a list of liens they wanted to purchase by the end of the business day, and the buyer with the largest dollar value would get their pick.

Ferdinand has said that preference goes to the largest volume lien buyers. All pay the same amount: the total due.

Sending an email to a limited group of insiders to announce liens are available for purchase is not a transparent process, said Rick Thompson, former head of the Georgia State Ethics Commission. The tax commissioner’s office should strive to include everyone who may be interested, not just the largest companies or those it worked with in the past.

“It wasn’t even a public notice?” Thompson asked. “It was just an email? That seems kind of crazy. To send an email out to just five individuals when there’s probably a lot more people interested would be poor policy at best.”

Ferdinand has provided little other information about the sale process, but he has told the AJC in his email that his office has never calculated the number or value of the liens he’s sold. At a county commissioners’ meeting earlier this month, he told the AJC he was “ignoring” questions about lien sales because news accounts about his program are “junk.”

Ferdinand’s inability to answer some questions and his refusal to answer others is ridiculous, said James Honkisz, chairman and president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Association. “It hurts every single Fulton County taxpayer, this kind of arrangement. There are certainly enough question marks your investigation has unearthed that deserve answers not only to the AJC, but the Fulton County taxpayers.”

Getting answers from the tax commissioner is not easy. County Commissioner Robb Pitts said even the commission has trouble getting Ferdinand to appear before them to answer questions.

Ferdinand also waged a two-year battle with the AJC to prevent release of the tax data.

At one point, Ferdinand told the AJC it would have to pay more than $16 million for the information. He lost that battle late last year, after Attorney General Sam Olens sided with the AJC and both threatened to sue Ferdinand and the vendor holding the data.

The data show that after the December email from Noble, a Vesta company ended up buying 94 percent of the 11,100 county and city of Atlanta 2012 tax liens Ferdinand sold.

From 2002 through 2011, Vesta and its sister companies were, by far, the largest buyers of all tax liens, purchasing up to $350 million worth, the analysis shows.
This explains why Vesta is also the largest recipient of liens sold before the 10 percent penalty is added, Ferdinand said in his letter.

“Simply by the numbers, this fact would obviously result in Vesta receiving a larger percentage of those paying the penalty to the third parties,” he wrote. “To infer that this shows favoritism to Vesta by the Tax Commissioner’s Office in any aspect is absolutely untrue and irresponsible.”

But that’s not exactly what the numbers show, and Ferdinand has acknowledged that he doesn’t know how many liens he’s sold to Vesta.

According to the data, Vesta purchased about 89 percent of the approximately 190,000 liens sold by Ferdinand.

But the company purchased more than 99 percent of the liens sold before 90 days — about 58,000 in all. All other lien purchasers combined purchased about 300.
For the 2010 county taxes, Vesta was the only early purchaser, and the early sales meant the county gave up about $5 million in potential revenue.

Of note, one of the few restrictions state lawmakers have put on tax lien sales concerned an incentive that Ferdinand once provided to those who buy tax liens in bulk. He discounted the sale price by 10 percent, providing the buyer with an immediate bonus. The Legislature in 2002 nixed that.

The Legislature may again cut off the 10 percent bump Ferdinand passes along, according to Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta.

“The question is, should we be selling tax liens before the 10 percent penalty is assessed?” Fort asked. “I would think not.”

SUBHEAD
Only one other metro county — Gwinnett — sells tax liens. It always collects the 10 percent penalty from the lien purchaser, said Gwinnett County Tax Commissioner Richard Steele.

That’s because even though state law allows tax commissioners to place liens once a bill is 30 days past due, Steele doesn’t do so within 90 days, much less sell the lien that quickly. Instead, bills are usually 10 to 12 months overdue before liens are put up for sale, he said.

There are good reasons to wait, he said. Sometimes, deed records don’t catch up with tax records in time, and Steele said he doesn’t want to put a mark against someone’s credit unnecessarily. By law, residents who receive tax bills have three months to prove that they don’t own the properties anymore to avoid having a lien placed against them.

He also acknowledged that transferring liens before penalties are added would be a loss to taxpayers.

“Technically, you’d be allowing the private entity to collect it rather than the county,” he said.

Overall in Georgia, 99 percent of overdue taxes are almost always paid before the next year’s taxes are due, according to Davis, with the state tax officials association.

State law stipulates that lien buyers are entitled to the same fees and penalties that tax commissioners are allowed to assess. That’s 1 percent interest each month the bill is overdue, a few additional fees and, for almost all properties, the one-time 10 percent penalty after the bill is 90 days overdue.

Some years, Ferdinand sold liens within days of the deadline for imposing the penalty. One year, he sold a batch of liens to Vesta just one day before he could have added the extra charge.

Frank S. Alexander, a law professor at Emory University who specializes in Georgia real estate finance and foreclosure law, opposes the sale of any tax liens as an abdication of the tax commissioner’s duty to collect overdue taxes. Further, he said failing to collect the 10 percent penalty raises “troubling questions.”

Alexander wants to know if there are there any criteria Ferdinand uses to decide who gets to buy liens before the county assesses the 10 percent penalty and if this is part of a standard written policy the public and elected officials can examine.

“I am puzzled by the timing and pricing of this because if you’re going to sell the liens and if your goal is to maximize the rate of return, why not wait an additional week and add the 10 percent penalty?” Alexander asked. “This shows one of the reasons why permitting the sale of tax liens is fraught with dangers for the operating of local governments.”

SECTION BREAK
The 10 percent penalty is a nice sweetener for Vesta, but it’s not the only benefit the tax commissioner’s office has provided.

Last fall Ferdinand sold liens to Vesta days before his office told another potential lien buyer that no liens were being sold.

In early November, a lien buyer sent an email to the tax commissioner’s office asking to buy tax liens.

Initially, Shola Olorunsola, the financial systems supervisor of the delinquent tax division, replied back that it would not be a problem. Minutes later, however, Olorunsola sent another email to the lien buyer, saying: “Please disregard my previous email, we are not transferring liens now until further notice.”

When the tax commissioner suspends the lien sales program, it applies to all buyers, Ferdinand said in his letter.

But the timing of the suspensions is troubling to some lien buyers.

Just days before the Olorunsola email, the lien transfer data show that the tax commissioner’s office transferred 6,400 tax liens worth $3.7 million to Vesta Holdings. The bulk purchase included 4,800 liens for 2012 Atlanta trash bills worth $2.5 million.

Other lien investors said they never even knew the tax commissioner was planning to sell the liens on the 2012 trash bills. If they knew, they said they would have liked an opportunity to buy the sanitation liens, too. These lien buyers did not want to be identified for fear that Ferdinand would stop selling them liens.

For lien purchasers like Tariq Hafeez, the treatment Vesta receives is just how things work at the tax commissioner’s office.

“When a common person like myself or my partner would come to them they would say, ‘We are not selling liens, come back in March or April.’ However, I noticed several times they would transfer the [liens] days before the 10 percent penalty kicks in for Vesta,” Hafeez said. “I don’t know how or why, but they get away with murder.”



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Overview of Fulton Races 2012 Part Two: Tax Commissioner, Etc.

From:  http://www.atlantaprogressivenews.com/interspire/news/2012/07/19/overview-of-fulton-races-2012-part-two-tax-commissioner-etc.html

TAX COMMISSIONER

Arthur Ferdinand, the incumbent, has two opponents for the Democratic nomination, including John Jamont and RJ Morris. The winner of the Democratic nomination will face no opposition in the General Election in November.

Morris raises a number of concerns about Ferdinand.

First, Morris questions Ferdinand’s total annual income of $342,000 dollars per year, which includes 130,000 dollars in salary and $212,000 in fees from cities in Fulton County that Ferdinand collects for himself. These fees would otherwise be payable to the County, and are thus being diverted from services for the taxpayers.

“We’re one of the only counties in Georgia that has a Tax Commissioner that still collects double salary. Arthur Ferdinand called up the cities and said he’d no longer collect their taxes unless they pay him personally. Once we get him out of office, he is one of five [tax commissioners] still grandfathered in... no future tax commissioner can ever do that again,” Morris said.

Morris raised concerns about Ferdinand’s practice of selling property tax liens to a private company after thirty days, which Morris argues is bad for the homeowners and bad for the county’s revenue stream.

“In all other counties, if people don’t pay their property tax, it goes down as a delinquent tax. Ninety percent of the time it is paid within six months, 99 percent within a year. The homeowners pay one percent on the money until its paid per month, and a 10 percent penalty after 90 days. Counties like it. It’s revenue for them,” Morris said, noting that after one year, the revenue is 22 percent interest.

“He sells liens within the first thirty days to a private company called Vesta Holdings. (see following article for Vesta info) He started this process about twelve years ago or longer because of a backlog from a former tax commissioner. The private company then got the 22 percent interest instead of the county, but at least the county got a huge chunk of change up front. Now, we’ve collected the back taxes, Ferdinand still sells these tax liens,” Morris said.

Morris said he wants to provide every homeowner at least six months to work out a payment plan. Only after that point, in absence of a payment plan, would Morris sell the lien to Vesta.

Morris also wants to open a Taxpayer Advocate Department within the Tax Commissioner’s Office, to focus in part on setting up payment plans.

Ferdinand has also been at the center of a dispute under the Georgia Open Records Act, in that he has refused to provide electronic data of all the tax liens that are sold.

“Ferdinand says he outsources these and they are outside of the scope of Open Records Act. We’re gonna sue Ferdinand, the Attorney General’s office is gonna be involved,” Morris said.

Morris said he believes that the records will show the disproportionate negative impact of Fulton County tax liens on the southern portion of the county, where more low-income minority families live. He argues that low-income families are often unable to hire the attorneys that families in North Fulton are able to hire.

“The Tax Commissioner has decimated low-income and predominantly African American neighborhoods for the last eleven years,” Morris said.

Barbara Payne, Executive Director of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation, said that her foundation is concerned about the impacts of property tax liens on South Fulton. The Foundation routinely holds property tax workshops throughout South Fulton and often provides significant discounts on Foundation membership fees and appeal assistance fees to anyone who cannot afford the full prices.

“We offer such significant discounts that the Foundation doesn’t gain any revenue. They still have to join the Foundation, but it’s cut in half. It’s a challenge, we can’t reach everyone. We’re a small group,” Payne told Atlanta Progressive News.

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Updated: 5:11 p.m. Monday, Feb. 7, 2011
 Private firms collecting back Fulton taxes fall behind
Controversial practice not allowed in most places 

By M.B. Pell
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
(extracts from the much longer article)


Companies that buy Fulton County liens for unpaid property taxes themselves owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in overdue property taxes, calling into question the county’s justification for selling the liens: that it saves taxpayers’ money.

Fulton County government’s practice of allowing private companies to collect delinquent taxes is controversial and barred by almost every other Georgia county and by 30 states, largely because of its potential to victimize property owners.


But a closer look at the industry by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution raises questions about the lien purchasing companies and about Fulton’s defense of the practice. Fulton tax officials declined to be interviewed for this story, but have said in the past that selling liens to private companies helps them collect a higher percentage of overdue tax bills. . .

Fulton County routinely sells tax liens to private third parties who can pump up the lien value by tacking on monthly interest charges and use foreclosure to collect the debt. . .

Some real estate tax experts criticize both the fairness and the effectiveness of the practice. Experts say selling tax liens can put properties in limbo for years, while, often, no one pays property taxes, possibly canceling any cost benefit of selling the original liens.

The private players include:

● Harpagon, a sister company of Vesta Holdings, the largest tax lien purchaser in Georgia. Harpagon owes about $120,000 in Fulton and Atlanta property taxes dating back to 2008, according to Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s online data.

● Heartwood11, a tax lien and deed purchasing company formerly managed by Vesta and a subsidiary of BankAtlantic. Heartwood11 owes about $300,000 in Fulton and Atlanta taxes dating to 2006, according to county online records. Fulton County collects Atlanta property taxes. BankAtlantic did not return multiple calls from the AJC. . .

Robert Proctor, a lawyer representing Vesta Holdings and sister corporations, said lien purchasers use the same process the government uses to collect tax debts, but reduce the expense through the efficiency of the private sector. And Proctor said the amount Vesta’s sister company owes in taxes is small compared to the revenue they provide to the city and county. . .

Vesta and other companies that buy the liens can use courthouse-steps sale of the property to collect the debt. . .

Vesta buys tens of millions of dollars in Fulton County tax liens, and Harpagon could owe a small fraction of that in taxes. . .

See the much longer article at:
http://www.ajc.com/news/news/local/private-firms-collecting-back-fulton-taxes-fall-be/nQqPb/

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 Updated: 7:42 a.m. Monday, March 18, 2013


Reform legislation is retaliation, tax commissioner says
Brant Sanderlin, bsanderlin@ajc.com

By M.B. Pell The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

For the third year in a row, the legislature is considering limiting the sale of tax liens to private collection companies. And for Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, this time it’s personal.
Ferdinand is the only tax commissioner in the state to rely on the sales to collect a sizable portion of overdue tax bills.

In letters to Sen. Judson Hill, R-Marietta, and Rep. Lynne Riley, R-Johns Creek, Ferdinand framed the legislative effort as a personal attack by lawmakers who had liens placed against their property. 

Similarly, he dismissed Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigations into the sale of liens as retaliation for liens he placed on property of the paper’s parent company, Cox Enterprises.

"These discussions have progressed to a public onslaught of innuendo and my character which is a clear indication that this campaign for ‘change and reform’ solely directed at my office is more of a personal agenda, rather than a public one," Ferdinand wrote. "In fact I wish to provide to the Fulton delegation some real clear facts that should not and cannot be ignored which show that the actions being taken against me by members of this great body and Cox Enterprises through the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) is simply retaliatory."

There is no tax lien bill currently before the legislature. But Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, the driving force behind legislation this year, said language regarding lien sales is still under consideration. That language could be added to a bill that’s already been approved by the House.

Willard wouldn’t discuss specifics. Earlier in the session he said he might increase debt notification requirements, require the county to have a searchable database of lien sales or even pursue a total ban on sales. He has also said he wants to forbid transferring liens until bills are six months overdue and slash in half both the 10 percent penalty and 1 percent monthly interest charged to delinquent taxpayers.

An AJC analysis of Fulton tax data found Ferdinand gave Vesta Holdings the opportunity to collect a potential $20 million in late fees that would otherwise go to fund Fulton County government.

The AJC also reported that days after he sold thousands of liens to Vesta last fall, his office told a smaller lien investor that the lien sales program was temporarily suspended. And last December Ferdinand’s office announced the availability of 2012 liens via an email to five people. A government ethics expert said that is not a transparent process.

Ferdinand did not dispute those findings in his letters to Riley and Hill.
Instead, Ferdinand enclosed documentation detailing the sale of liens on the property of critics and Cox.

Since 1998 Ferdinand sold to Vesta Holdings three liens on property of Willard’s.

His office also sold an $88 lien for a late fee against the property of House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, who also supports a change to the lien sale process. Jones has said she never received notification of the late fee and says lack of notification is a problem for many Fulton taxpayers.
Ferdinand sold a 2001 lien for $52 on property of County Commissioner Liz Hausmann, who has called for an investigation of lien sales that allowed Vesta to collect millions of dollars in late fees. Hausmann said her mortgage company got its wires crossed and sent her taxes in late, but she did not even know about the lien until last year.

"I have no beef with the tax commissioner," she said. "I do think the penalty issue you guys uncovered is significant. I think $20 million deserves a look."
Ferdinand also included documentation of several liens he said were placed against Cox properties and sold to Vesta. One was for $21. The largest was for $39,000.

"One can only deduce that by failing to disclose their own liens, they essentially had an ulterior motive along with their cohorts in the delegation in this effort to discredit me," he wrote.

A statement issued by Cox Enterprises said that as a consistent business practice, it processes and pays all property taxes when bills are received. "After looking into the properties in question and issues raised, we have been in contact with the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office to obtain written confirmation of one, outstanding lien for approximately $500. Our records indicate we have satisfied all other obligations we are aware of for Fulton County taxes."

In his letter, Ferdinand accused the AJC of launching a two-year open records battle with him the day after his office placed a lien against a Cox property.
But three weeks before Ferdinand placed the lien, the AJC had started issuing open records requests for lien sales data. It took action after Ferdinand refused to discuss how many liens he sold, how much he sold them for and who bought them.

In the lengthy legal fight that followed the initial request, the AJC issued many additional requests, including one the day after Ferdinand placed the lien against the Cox property.

AJC reporters did not know of the lien against Cox when they started writing about controversy over the sale of tax liens to private collection companies. The tax commissioners’ website listed the owner of that property as the Fulton County Development Authority.

Article at:
http://www.ajc.com/news/news/reform-legislation-is-retaliation-tax-commissioner/nWt9G/#cmComments

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Fulton County Property owned by Ferdinand





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From 7/93 units 7/99 FERDINAND had 'Productivity and Quality Incorporated' registered with the Georgia Secretary of State.


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