Fulton’s high-paid tax collector gets a county car

Fulton County Tax Commissioner Arthur Ferdinand makes more money than any other elected official in Georgia, yet taxpayers fund his daily commute.

Ferdinand, who earned nearly $350,000 last year, has a county-issued 2013 Ford Explorer XLT to use for his 28-mile round-trip drive, documents show. And county vehicles can be filled with gas on the county’s tab.

Several county commissioners were unaware of Ferdinand’s car until they saw a recent report on take-home vehicles.

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During Wednesday’s commission meeting, Ferdinand confirmed to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he has a county vehicle, but when asked the reason said, “If the board wants to know, I’ll tell the board. I’m not talking to you about it.”

Commissioner Liz Hausmann has asked the interim county manager for an explanation. “I mean, he’s the highest-paid elected official in the state,” Hausmann said. “I’m in the field all the time, but I drive my own car.”

The County Commission could order the county manager to revoke approval of the SUV.

Tax commissioners for Cobb, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties do without such perks, and the president of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials said tax collectors very rarely need to work in the field or respond to emergencies.

Fulton County is nevertheless supplying Ferdinand with a vehicle worth roughly $30,000 and saving him more than $800 a year in gas on his commute alone, according to an online fuel cost calculator.

The revelations come as more and more questions are being raised about how the tax collector operates in the state’s most populous county. For years, residents and lawmakers have assailed Ferdinand’s high pay, which is more than double what Gov. Nathan Deal earns and nearing what President Barack Obama makes.

He has also been criticized for his speedy sales of unpaid tax debts to private collection firms, which property owners complain puts them at risk of losing their homes over what started as small overdue sums.

The report given to commissioners this week shows Ferdinand is one of 148 Fulton employees with take-home vehicles, and one of 23 who don’t work in public safety. No one else in the tax commissioner’s office has an overnight car.

Facilities and Transportation Director David Ricks told the board that Ferdinand has always had a county-issued vehicle. Past reports show he’s previously had 2003- and 2007-model Explorers.

The county did not produce records requested by the AJC on Thursday showing how much Ferdinand’s latest SUV cost, who approved it and for what purpose.

Kelley Blue Book values a new 2013 Ford Explorer XLT at about $33,000. The county usually gets better deals, and records show recent Explorer purchases of about $18,000 to $22,000 apiece.

The only other Fulton elected officials with take-home cars are District Attorney Paul Howard, who has a 2007 Ford Expedition, and Sheriff Ted Jackson, who has a 2009 Crown Victoria. Interim County Manager David Ware has a 2007 Ford Explorer XLT, the report says.

Commissioner Bill Edwards said he’s not leaping to any conclusions about the tax commissioner’s car until he hears Ferdinand’s side.

“If there’s a need for him to have a county car, I will stand behind that 100 percent,” said Edwards, who has defended Ferdinand in the past. “If it’s not substantiated, take it away. … I’m sure he has enough money to buy gas.”

Jackson County Tax Commissioner Don Elrod, president of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, said very few tax commissioners have take-home vehicles. They don’t need them because most of their work is done in a central office, he said.

Others disagree. When the Clayton County Commission tried to reclaim take-home vehicles issued to Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin’s office in 2010, Baskin stood between a car and a police tow truck and was arrested for misdemeanor obstruction.

Elrod said he has an older-model sheriff’s patrol car that he uses for runs to the bank and the post office, but he doesn’t take it home. In more than two decades in office, he said he’s been called to work after hours no more than five times.

Atlanta-based tax activist R.J. Morris, who ran against Ferdinand unsuccessfully last year, called Ferdinand’s SUV another example of taxpayer abuse.

“Do you really expect someone who’s taking the taxpayers for almost $350,000 to stop there?” Morris said. “That’s a lot of cash. I guess he needs a big vehicle to take it home every night.”

Ferdinand earns about $134,500 per year from the county, but gets extra money from $1-per-parcel personal fees charged to Atlanta, Sandy Springs and Johns Creek for billing their taxes.

He also uses a controversial collection method that involves placing liens on delinquent taxpayers and quickly selling the debts to private investment firms, a process no other Georgia tax commissioner relies upon so heavily. A recent AJC investigation found that over the past 11 years, Ferdinand’s lien sales before the 90-day late penalty kicked in resulted in the county handing as much as $20 million in potential profits to the county’s largest lien buyer, Vesta Holdings, with a corresponding potential loss to taxpayers of $20 million.

Ferdinand responded that Vesta receives no favoritism from his office. Lien sales are legal, he said, and lien buyers reap the benefit of penalties and interest because they take the risk of collecting overdue taxes.

He also said quick lien sales keep the county and cities flush with cash, ensuring hundreds of millions of dollars flow in to pay for roads, police, firefighters, courts, libraries and other services.

Still, the process recently caused a minor international flap when it ensnared the Indian Consulate in Sandy Springs, which disputes that it owes taxes under international law.

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