Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand dipped into his own department funds last year to buy a full-size SUV for his own use, costing taxpayers $39,000, documents obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reveal.
Because Ferdinand’s vehicle, a 2013 Ford Explorer Limited, is part of the county’s fleet, it means residents are funding the daily commute — including gasoline — for the state’s highest-paid elected official. They also could be responsible for any new tires or oil changes he may require.
Some officials and taxpayers were outraged to learn that Ferdinand, who made nearly $350,000 last year, used his office resources for a take-home vehicle — a perk that tax commissioners in Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties do without. The purchase came to light earlier this month when county commissioners raised questions about a routine take-home vehicle report.
He was able to buy the vehicle without county commissioners’ scrutiny because the price fell below a $50,000 threshold.
The AJC has since sought answers, using the state’s Open Records Law to request documents showing how much his SUV cost, who approved it and for what purpose. After more than a week of searching, the most meaningful things county staffers have produced is the $39,000 purchase order instructing that the invoice be sent to the Tax Commissioner’s Office, meaning the funds came out of that department’s budget, a spokeswoman said. Ferdinand did not respond to phone messages or questions emailed to him Monday.
Ferdinand has been the focus of criticism in the past, some of it related to an annual income that exceeds that of Gov. Nathan Deal and approaches the pay for President Barack Obama. A key factor behind his earnings is a charge of $1 per parcel in fees for doing the tax billing for Atlanta, Johns Creek and Sandy Springs — a practice state legislators have tried to halt. Ferdinand’s opponents say he is pocketing money for services done with county staff and equipment.
Criticism has intensified with the revelation of Ferdinand’s latest auto purchase.
“Greed is the only word I can think of,” Midtown resident Carol Brantley said. “Most people realize that Fulton County and all governments are struggling with their budgets and looking for ways to cut expenses, not ways to increase their personal incomes at the expense of taxpayers.”
But Commissioner Tom Lowe, a Republican who represents a portion of north Fulton, defended Ferdinand, a Democrat, as “a high-ranking department head” who “makes more money for the county than anybody else.”
“If he wants a car,” Lowe said, “I don’t give a damn whether it’s a go-kart or a Cadillac.”
Ferdinand swiftly brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue needed to fund myriad county services, and the County Commission has given him leeway in managing his overall budget, shielding him from cuts. To bring in so much money so quickly, Ferdinand has sold tax debts to private collectors. No other Georgia tax commissioner relies so heavily on such sales, and the practice has sparked a lot of criticism about how Ferdinand conducts business for the county.
For the past two years, the county has asked departments to reduce their general fund target budgets by up to 5 percent, but Ferdinand’s office has been exempted, as have most public safety agencies and the Board of Commissioners.
Ferdinand’s office was allocated $15.3 million for 2013, a $460,000 increase from last year.
Commissioner Bill Edwards said he doesn’t know whether Ferdinand is allowed to have a car, but he assumes so because the tax commissioner wouldn’t have one otherwise. As to whether he should have a car, Edwards said: “That’s between him and the voters.”
The president of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, Jackson County Tax Commissioner Don Elrod, has told the AJC that few tax commissioners have take-home vehicles, since most of their work is done in a central office.
An exception is the office of Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, which has two. In 2010, when Baskin’s office had four vehicles, he was charged with misdemeanor obstruction after standing between a car and a police tow truck. The County Commission was trying to reclaim take-home vehicles assigned to his office.
Fulton County documents show Ferdinand has previously had 2003- and 2007-model Explorers at county expense. He now has the newest, most upscale car of any Fulton official who’s allowed to drive one home.
It’s unclear whether anyone other than Ferdinand signed off on the purchase of the latest vehicle in August. Because it was for only one vehicle and for less than the $50,000 threshold, it did not go before the County Commission in a public meeting, as many vehicle purchases do.
“The guy just apparently doesn’t have any shame,” said Jim Honkisz, interim president of the Fulton County Taxpayers Foundation. “With the amount of money he’s earning, he could certainly afford his own vehicle.”
Chairman John Eaves said Ferdinand has not explained to commissioners why he needs the SUV and it’s questionable whether it allows him to do a better job.
Eaves said Ferdinand should consider reassigning the SUV to an employee or department that can make better use of it.
“Given the budgetary constraints and the public’s expectations that we be as thrifty as possible,” Eaves said, “to me, this is an unnecessary expense.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has uncovered problems stemming from the Fulton County Tax Commissioner’s Office’s sales of tax debts to private collection firms. Previous articles described how homeowners didn’t know they owed overdue taxes until their homes were being auctioned and they owed thousands of dollars in penalties and interest to settle small bills. Ferdinand has also taken heat for being the state’s highest-paid elected official through personal fees from tax collections in Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek.