Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen attended training on the 2007 change in state law that affected her agreements to collect taxes for Harlem and Grovetown, according to state records.
A lawyer for Allen, who is under fire for accepting more than $160,000 in extra pay directly from these two cities, stated in a Jan. 17 letter to Gov. Nathan Deal that she was unaware of the change in law.
The Georgia Department of Revenue provided documents Monday that show Allen attended training in May 2007 in Athens covering changes that were about to take effect two months later.
Allen’s contracts with the two cities have been the subject of controversy for months and the target of investigations by the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. Allen has received additional compensation from the cities for decades.
The point of contention is over a change in state law that took place in 2007. The law states that in counties with more than 50,000 parcels, tax commissioners can receive additional pay from the county for such services, but not directly frowm a city. Since 2009, when Columbia County passed the 50,000-parcel threshold, Allen has collected more than $160,000 in extra pay directly from Harlem and Grovetown.
County Commission members contend this is a violation of state law and want the money returned. They have sent a letter to Deal seeking his intervention and the possible removal of Allen from office.
Allen, through her attorney, has said the payments do not violate the law. Her attorney, Douglas Chalmers Jr., also said she was not aware of the change in the law.
“Setting aside questions concerning the proper interpretation of the amended statute, to the best of Commissioner Allen’s recollection she was not aware in 2007 that this law had been amended,” Chalmers wrote in his Jan. 17 letter to Deal, responding to the governor’s inquiry and demand to show cause why she should remain in office.
Department of Revenue records, however, show Allen received 15 hours credit for attending the classes, which took place May 14-16. The training covered changes brought about by HB 486, creating a division between tax commissioners in small and large counties – those with more than 50,000 parcels.
According to PowerPoint slides provided by Revenue, the training discussed those changes to compensation in larger counties.
“The tax commissioner can receive compensation from the county (not the city directly) for the additional duties and responsibilities,” which include collection of city taxes, the slides stated.
Chalmers pointed out that the PowerPoint presentation covered not just that one change in the law, but gave an overview of legislative changes in eight other bills. He said it was “unrealistic” to expect elected officials to recall everything they learn in such training sessions.
“The fact of the matter is that Kay does not recall the state making the change in the law,” he said. “It may very well not have made an impression because it was not relevant for Columbia County at the time.”
It is true that in 2007 the law did not apply to Columbia County, which had just over 47,000 parcels. The county was growing rapidly, however, and by 2009 the parcel count had jumped to 51,028, according to county records.
Chalmers also points out that in 2009, Allen wasn’t the only one that failed to note the change in law or how it might affect her compensation. No county commissioners, the county administrator nor the county attorney brought up the matter. He says other tax commissioners around that state also had similar deals.
“It appears to us the compensation that Kay was paid was entirely appropriate considering what other counties were doing in similar situations,” he said. “We continue to hope that we can reach an appropriate and fair resolution for all involved.”
Allen might not recall the training, but her former deputy, Dwight Johnson, said he remembers the issue came up at another tax commissioner’s conference that same year. He said he was there when Allen voiced her opinion on the matter.
“I didn’t know what they were talking about at first, but then I remember them talking about city taxes,” Johnson said. “She was one of several that spoke up about it.”
Johnson said Allen told others that she would not be giving up that extra compensation from the cities for her services. Johnson, who was fired by Allen in October over what she says was the misplacement of a $55 deposit, said he went to the FBI in August with his concerns about payments and other issues.
Most recently, he was the subject of a complaint by a worker in Allen’s office, who claimed he made threats while he was there to handle a motor vehicle tax issue. Clerk Diane Chiera told deputies that Johnson threatened the jobs of employees who made “statements about him” and made a slashing gesture to his throat.
Security video from Johnson’s visit that day, however, failed to support Cheira’s claims, and the incident is considered closed, according to sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris.
“I didn’t make any throat-cutting gestures with my hands,” Johnson said. “I had a pleasant attitude the entire time.”
Johnson said he was told by police that if he has future business in the office he should bring his lawyer or call for a deputy to accompany him there.