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Tax Commissioner pushes back against claims she is raising contract fees with cities only to boost her pay

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    GWINNETT COUNTY, Georgia (Gwinnett Daily Post) — Gwinnett County’s tax commissioner and one member of its Board of Commissioners are engaged in a public dispute over whether the county’s top tax official should charge eight cities that use her office for tax billing a fee that would reportedly generate a $110,000 supplement to her salary.

Commissioner Kirkland Carden raised concerns last week about the higher fee that would be included in a new contract between Tax Commissioner Tiffany Porter’s office and the cities of Berkeley Lake, Dacula, Grayson, Lawrenceville, Lilburn, Peachtree Corners, Snellville and Sugar Hill.

Carden is the only member of the county commission who has previous experience serving on a city council, although the city he held office in, Duluth, does not use the Tax Commissioner’s Office for tax billing.

“These proposed changes would drastically increase the financial burden placed on municipalities and taxpayers,” Carden said. “I can’t think of a worse time to hike the fees a city must pay than right now after their budgets have already been devastated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

With Porter taking office Jan. 1, the contract that existed between the tax commissioner’s office under her predecessor, Richard Steele, and the cities expired. Porter and her office have been negotiating new contracts, with higher fees, with the cities.

She said three of the eight cities have verbally agreed to the new contracts, but did not specify which cities made those agreements. Officials at the office said they could not disclose the names of the cities because contract negotiations are ongoing.

The contract that has been proposed includes charging the cities $1.80 per tax parcel, which would go to the county, as well as $2 per parcel, which would go to the tax commissioner.

The cities paid $1.57 per parcel in 2020, with that money going to the county.

A key point of the argument is over the fee that would generate a supplement to Porter’s salary.

The tax commissioner said the situation has been portrayed as a “greedy pay raise,” which she said is a false narrative. She said it should instead be viewed as “additional compensations for additional responsibility.”

Porter argued it is not fair for her to be asked to do the cities’ tax billing without being paid to do it.

The tax commissioner is paid $141,098 a year, according to salary figures county officials released for all of Gwinnett’s constitutional officers at the beginning of March.

“I am 100% satisfied with my salary and job, which is the Gwinnett County tax commissioner,” Porter said. “I did not run or agree to be the tax commissioner for any city. I question the morality of additional responsibility without additional compensation.”

Porter would not be the first tax commissioner to pursue this option. Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand, for example, reportedly use such contracts to boost his compensation to about $490,000 a year, according to news reports from 2019.

But, Carden said Gwinnett cities that use the Tax Commissioner’s Office to do their tax billing were only charged for the services provided by the office in the past.

If the contracts — which Carden said would require final approval by the Board of Commissioners, possibly in May — are approved, the additional fee would mean Porter would take home just over $250,000 a year — more than any other local elected official, or even Gov. Brian Kemp.

The only local official who would be paid more in a year would be outgoing Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, who is an appointed official.

“Tax Commissioner Porter is looking to significantly increase the rate – in some cases tripling the fees charged – with excess funds being paid directly to her,” Carden said. “These changes are unnecessary and not a responsible use of taxpayers’ money. As a leader who believes in putting the people first, I will not support these changes.”

Porter pointed out, however, that she has responsibility for the bank accounts that tax collections go into.

“I believe it’s right and fair to receive a fee for shouldering more responsibility,” she said. “The bank accounts for the $1.6 billion in annual collections aren’t in the name of Gwinnett County or the cities, they’re in the name of Tiffany P. Porter, and I am personally liable and responsible for any errors.

“Commissioner Kirkland Carden’s comments were premature and, issued prior to our scheduled meeting to explain the proposal, demonstrate ignorance about the work and role of the tax commissioner and the fair distribution of costs between county and city taxpayers.”

But, Carden said he stands by his remarks from last week.

“I’ve researched the matter very, very extensively (and) I was very studious about how I approached this,” he said.

Carden said he has heard from some mayors in district, some of whom he talked to as recently as Monday, who are adamantly opposed to a fee that would be a supplement to Porter’s salary. The commissioner conceded some of the eight cities may feel a pinch and agree to the proposed contract even if they don’t like it.

The cities are continuing to negotiate the contract with Porter’s office.

But, the dispute could have far reaching impacts for the affected cities. Some of Gwinnett’s cities do their own tax billing. That’s something Lawrenceville City Manager Chuck Warbington didn’t rule that out as a future option a few years down the road for Gwinnett’s county seat.

Lawrenceville would be facing a sharp increase in what it is paying for tax billing services under the new contract.

Warbington told the Daily Post last week that the proposal was not favored by the city. On Monday, he said he was not aware of any of the cities verbally agreeing to the contract.

“The City of Lawrenceville received a new agreement from the Tax Commissioner that almost tripled the cost to the residents of the city,” Warbington said. “The requested increase was for a direct supplement to her salary.

“Since our agreement for services for the Tax Commissioner is with the Board of Commissioners, we are pleased with initial discussions that there appears to be little support for the agreement as presented.”

Porter may not have a chance to collect the additional fees from the cities, however. State Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, said he and state Sen. Nikki Merritt, D-Grayson, are working on an amendment to Senate Bill 201, which is expected to come up for a final vote in the Georgia General Assembly on Wednesday to bar the Gwinnett and Fulton tax commissioners from using the fees to increase their take home pay.

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