CONYERS -- In April 2012 Rockdale County Clerk of Courts Ruth Wilson announced to the Board of Commissioners a plan to give away 100 percent of passport processing fees collected in her office, fees that she is legally entitled to keep as personal income. As of January this year, that plan was changed.
As promised last year, Wilson has been giving the passport fees to the entities she pledged to support -- the county general fund, the clerk's office bonus fund and charitable organizations. In addition, since January, 25 percent of the fees have been directed to a Clerk of Courts Fund from which funds are disbursed to her.
In an email response to questions Thursday, Wilson pointed out that under Georgia code, "100 percent of the Passport Acceptance Fee is due to me as personal income. The Legislature in its last session reviewed the law and left it unchanged. Despite this, effective January this year, I have chosen to share the money with local nonprofits, the Board of Commissioners and the Clerk of Courts staff. I am proud of our unmatched transparency on this issue and am very happy to share the blessings."
Passport processing fees were a contentious issue during Wilson's re-election campaign in 2012. Wilson's opponent, Republican Holly Bowie, said at the time that if she were elected all of the passport fees would be used to support operations of the clerk's office. Under state law, clerks of courts are allowed to keep the $25 administrative passport fees as personal compensation for doing federal work. In 2011 Wilson collected more than $40,000 in personal income from the passport fees.
Wilson effectively removed that issue from the campaign after she told the Rockdale Board of Commissioners that she would no longer keep any of the passport fees collected in her office for her personal income.
In March 2012, Wilson first proposed to keep 50 percent of the fees and give the remaining 50 percent to the county's general fund and to support the clerk's office.
Then, at an April 2012 work session of the Board of Commissioners, Wilson announced that she would give away 100 percent of the passport processing fees. Her initial proposal to keep only 50 percent of the funds "was an improvement over the past practice of the office," she said at the time. "But it's still not good enough. We need a complete break from the past practice in this office."
Wilson then said she would give one-third of the fees to fund end-of-year bonuses in the clerk's office, excluding the elected clerk, one-third to the county general fund, and one-third to local charitable organizations.
She also pledged to post monthly information about the disbursement of the funds on the clerk's website. Wilson said the effective date of her plan was May 1, 2012.
Wilson won re-election by a margin of 58 percent in November 2012 and was sworn in to serve a second four-year term in January.
On Tuesday, July 9, Wilson made the first disbursement of passport fees to the county general fund, giving $18,352.08 that will be used to offset the operating costs of her office. According to Wilson, $9,016.66 of the total was collected May 2, 2012, through Oct. 31, 2012, and the balance of $9,335.42 was collected from Nov. 1, 2012, through May 31, 2013.
Wilson did not immediately respond to questions regarding her decision to keep a portion of the passport fees.
The clerk's website disclosure of passport fee disbursements shows 215 passports issued in June and a total of 1,657 of passports issued year to date. The website shows total receipts for June at $5,375 and total receipts from November 2012 through June at $41,425.
Based on information on the website, the 25 percent allocations from November 2012 to June break down as follows:
-- County general fund -- $10,679
-- Clerk of Courts fund -- $9,387
-- Employee bonus fund -- $10,679
-- Charitable contributions -- $10,679
Disbursements to those accounts are listed as follows:
-- County general fund -- $9,335.42
-- Clerk of Courts fund -- $4,175
-- Employee bonus fund -- 0
-- Charitable contributions -- $500 to the Glass Family Fund, $4,216 to Project ReNeWal, $4,216 to Phoenix Pass, $4,216 to Conyers-Rockdale Council for the Arts, and $2,000 to the Rockdale House for Men and Rockdale House for Women.