COVINGTON -- The Association County Commissioners of Georgia is taking the position that passport administration fees processed by county employees should remain with the county and not be retained as personal income by Superior Court clerks.
"We feel that if the passports are being processed in a county facility that's being paid for by the county, by employees that are being paid by the county, then any revenue that is the result of any service or fees generated by that office should go back to the county," said Debra Nesbit, associate legislative director for ACCG.
Nesbit said ACCG is hearing from county officials who are concerned about the state law that allows the $25 administrative fees to be retained as personal income for Superior Court clerks whose offices handle the processing.
There appears to be little accountability as to reporting how many passports are processed, how much in fees is collected and how those fees are spent, she said.
"There is no set way to track how much revenue is even generated," she said. "We were trying to track that through the federal side, but we didn't have good information to work with, or we weren't able to get to the right agency to get that information."
Nesbit said ACCG's Policy Committee will meet this summer to develop a formal policy on the matter and set its legislative agenda for the 2013 session. She said several state lawmakers have already indicated they want to address the issue next year. ACCG's official position would depend on the details in any proposed legislation, she said.
"Our preference would be to have some kind of system set up for accounting and some type of compensation agreement so the county is getting some compensation," she added.
Nesbit pointed out that in some jurisdictions, the U.S. Postal Service handles passport processing and the postmaster does not get an administrative fee, but all the money goes into the federal government general fund.
Not all clerks keep passport processing fees as personal compensation, she said, noting that some have a special fund to purchase office equipment and other needs, and some do revenue sharing with counties.
"We have moved away from a fee-based system over the years. Years ago, constitutional officers, like clerks, probate judges and tax commissioners' compensation was fee-based. When you needed something you went in and paid a fee and that's how they were compensated. The county didn't fund the salary or benefits. We've moved away from that system over the last 30 or 40 years. Now clerks by statute are compensated by salary and the longevity scale is clearly laid out," Nesbit said.
Concerns about allowing clerks to retain passport fees as personal income first arose several years ago in Hall County, where the large immigration population results in a significant amount of passports issued, Nesbit said.
The matter became a hot button issue during the election for Superior Court clerk in Hall.
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 recently told the Citizen. Now, the Superior Court Clerk's Office in Hall County processes passports, but the fees are given directly to the county general fund.
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.
Since taking office in 2009, Baker said $232,730 in passport fees has been given to the Hall County general fund.
Nesbit said recent discussions in Rockdale County have also prompted county officials across the state to take notice. Following recent public scrutiny, Clerk Ruth Wilson announced a new 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.
In Newton County, Superior Court Clerk Linda Hays' office processes passports, but details on how many have been processed and how much in fees have been generated, and where that money has gone, remain unclear.
Hays said she retains a copy of passport transmittal forms for each passport processed, but that those records are destroyed after 24 months. She also said those records contain confidential information on passport applicants, which she said is protected under the Privacy Act of 1974.
Hays supplied one form, a report submitted to the U.S. Department of State Passport Services Passport Application Acceptance Program, which states that the number of passport applications accepted from Oct. 1, 2010, through Sept. 30, 2011, was 1,560. Calculated at a $25 processing fee per passport, that would amount to $39,000 collected in that 12-month period.
In a letter sent to the Citizen on April 12, Hays cites a section of Georgia law defining public records as those prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of a public office or agency, or items received or maintained by a private person or entity on behalf of a public office or agency.
"My personal records regarding the expenditure of passport processing fees ... are neither prepared and maintained or received in the course of the operation of Newton County nor are they maintained by me on behalf of Newton County," Hays stated.
The Citizen has contacted the U.S. Department of State in an effort to get more information regarding the number of passports processed in Newton County.