Rockdale court clerk to disperse all passport fees

CONYERS -- Rockdale County Clerk of Courts Ruth Wilson surprised residents at the Rockdale County Board of Commissioners work session Tuesday night by announcing a plan under which she will receive none of the passport processing fees generated in her office for her personal use. Instead, Wilson said she will donate one-third of the funds to the county general fund; one-third to the clerk's office end-of-year bonuses; and the final third of the funds will be donated to local charitable organizations.

Wilson had been scheduled to discuss a plan she first proposed at a BOC meeting on March 27 to keep only 50 percent of the funds while donating 25 percent to the county's general fund and using 25 percent for the clerk's office. Over the past three years, Wilson has received approximately $117,000 in passport processing fees for her personal use.

Since taking office in 2009, Wilson has taken advantage of a state law that allows clerks of courts to keep the $25 administrative passport fees as personal compensation for doing federal work.

Wilson contrasted her plan to donate all the funds with what she described as the previous clerk's plan, which she said was 70 percent to her predecessor's personal use and 30 percent to the clerk's office.

"Compared to that, the 50-25-25 plan would have been an improvement. But it's still not good enough," Wilson said Tuesday night.

Joanne Caldwell served as Rockdale's clerk of courts from Jan. 1, 1985, to Dec. 31, 2008. Caldwell said that through 2001 all the passport processing fees generated by her office were dedicated to use in her office. In 2002, on the advice of her CPA, Caldwell said she set up a separate account from which funds were dispersed for use in her office and to charities, after taxes. Caldwell said there remains a balance in the account that is still being used for charitable purposes.

Wilson's new procedure for funds distribution will take effect May 1, but Wilson jump started the new process by making a $5,000 donation to Rockdale Emergency Relief Tuesday night.

Wilson said RER does the most good in the community for the people most in need, and said she was encouraged that RER is working to find a new home for the Community Clothes Closet.

"We are working alongside many people here in the community ... working together toward a solution for the Clothes Closet," said RER director Ashley Roesel, who was on hand to accept the donation.

Wilson said the new procedure will include establishment of a community panel, as-yet-unnamed, that will make determinations about the charitable contributions of the passport processing fees.

In addition, she said the Clerk of Court's website will post monthly information on the number of passports processed, the amount of passport fees collected, and the total account balance.

All three members of the Board of Commissioners thanked Wilson and for her plan for distribution of the fees.

"I thank you very sincerely for your new plan," said Commissioner JaNice Van Ness, who had pressed Wilson for details on the passport fees in March. "I think it speaks to the level of raising the bar in Rockdale County, and I applaud that."

Commissioner Oz Nesbitt said that Wilson's plan resolved the issue of how the funds were dispersed and also provided a solution for the Clothes Closet.

"(Through) The leadership of our clerk of court, Ms. Wilson ... we just killed two birds with one stone, and now we can move on to focus on bigger things that are much more important to Rockdale County," said Nesbitt.

Commission Chairman Richard Oden praised Wilson for enduring criticism over several weeks.

"Thank you for your courage and your leadership, and we certainly appreciate that," Oden said.

However, not all present were satisfied with Wilson's solution.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, resident Jim Roppo called Wilson's plan "theater of the absurd," noting that the BOC didn't vote to accept the distribution plan and that no one is asking what was done with the passport processing fees collected over the past three years.

"I guess we just sweep that under the carpet and say, 'OK, we have a procedure now,'" he said.

Roppo asked that Oden call for an investigation into how fees collected by all county government offices are handled.

Resident Sam Smiley, a candidate for the Post 1 seat on the BOC, congratulated Wilson for "coming up with a better alternative than we had two weeks ago."

However, Smiley went on to remind commissioners that the BOC had resolved to cut all funding for nonprofit organizations three years ago.

Smiley said he supports RER and other local charitable organizations, but he believes a review of the 2009 resolution is in order.

"We need to revisit this if we are going to continue ... we need to go back and fix what was broken back in 2009," Smiley said.

Nesbitt said he had no problem with revisting that resolution. "My goal is to make sure that the fixing is fair," he said.