Handling of passport fees differs among counties

CONYERS -- Rockdale and Newton counties are among the majority of counties in Georgia that provide passport processing through either the clerk of courts office or the Probate Court office. In Rockdale and Newton, the clerk of court offices handle the processing and, under state law, the elected clerks are allowed to keep the income from passport fees.

Although state law allows clerks to keep the $25 administrative fees as personal compensation for doing federal work, not every county that takes passport applications takes advantage of that provision.

In Hall County, the Superior Court Clerk's Office does process passports, but the fees are given directly to that county's general fund.

Charles Baker, who was elected Superior Court clerk in 2008, said he pledged during his campaign that he would not accept the fees as income.

"It was really a campaign issue. There were three of us running and everybody just said that we would not accept the money and the money would be given to the county at the time," Baker said Thursday.

Baker said the county commissioners had asked the previous clerk, Dwight Wood, to give part of the fees to the county, but Wood opted to retain the fees.

"He stayed with the code section and so he kept the execution fees," Baker said.

Since taking office in 2009, Baker said $232,730 in passport fees has been given to the Hall County general fund.

He said administering passport applications is a valuable service provided by many clerk's offices, especially in more rural counties, but he believes it's good policy to use the fees for county purposes.

"It saves me a lot of headaches if there's no question about the fees," Baker said. "If I don't see the money, there can't be any questions."

Rockdale Clerk of Courts Ruth Wilson has been invited to address the Board of Commissioners next week to discuss how to handle passport fees that she has been taking as personal income and to describe how her predecessor handled these fees. The Board of Commissioners will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the J.P. Carr Community Room.

The passport fees became an issue in Rockdale County after Wilson proposed to the BOC in March that she would retain only 50 percent of the fees collected for the processing of passports through the clerk's office. The remainder would be divided equally, with 25 percent to be given to Rockdale County's general fund and 25 percent to be used in the clerk's office for office supplies, staff recognition, travel expenses and other administrative needs.

State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, said the law allowing clerks to make passport fees personal income was put into place to help small counties that didn't have enough funds to attract quality clerks. The Legislature opted to allow the fees to supplement the clerk's pay. Holt said he did not know how long the law has been in place.

There have been proposed bills that would require that money be put into the county's general fund, but they have all quickly died, he said. Though Holt said he has supported those bills and would likely support similar proposals in the future, it would likely be difficult to get such a measure passed.

Such a bill would have to be passed as general law, meaning it would be statewide, and not through local legislation on a per county basis, he said. The current law was passed through general law and local legislation cannot pre-empt general law he said. Such a "one-sized fits all" approach generally doesn't get very far in the Legislature.

To avoid making the requirement statewide, "They would have to figure out a better mechanism to discriminate between counties that do still have a general need for that pay and those that don't, and that would be a value judgement of who is well enough that they don't need it," Holt said.

"You would probably need somebody in a strong position to move (such a bill). It would have to come from the House or Senate leadership or maybe from one of the committee chairmen who oversee that part of the state code, or if the clerk's association came out in favor of making the change."

During the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners meeting in March, Commissioner JaNice Van Ness pressed Wilson why would she not return all the fees to the county, considering the passport applications are processed by county staff in a county-operated office.

Wilson said she was legally permitted to keep the fees, but she is now willing to share them with the county. She said until now no policy has been in place and she is attempting to establish one.

Since taking office in 2009, Wilson, who earns an annual salary of approximately $90,000, has collected more than $117,000 as supplemental income from these fees, according to emailed responses from Wilson to questions from the Citizen.

Wilson, a Democrat, is seeking re-election this year.

Commission Chairman Richard Oden asked Wilson to attend the next work session and discuss her proposal more fully and provide documentation to show how previous clerks of court allocated the passport fees.

Based on Board of Commissioners' minutes, JoAnne Caldwell, who served as Clerk of Courts from 1985 until her retirement in 2008, donated more than $65,800 to the county between 1994 and 2002.

-- Staff reporter Crystal Tatum contributed to this report.