Columbia County commissioners are awaiting Tax Commissioner Kay Allen’s response to a draft audit of her department that found she was withholding more than $93,000 in funds from the county and other authorities.
The audit by Serotta, Maddocks, Evans & Co., which was ordered by commissioners in December, examined the tax commissioner’s books and accounts over an 18-month period beginning July 1, 2012.
Its findings include that the tax commissioner was failing to remit money due to the county and other taxing authorities and that Allen was using a tax trust fund to pay credit card expenses before being reimbursed by the county. Allen then repaid the tax funds with the reimbursement.
The draft version of the audit, acquired through a state Open Records request, also confirms that Allen received $57,500 in fees from Grovetown and Harlem in the past two years as payments for tax collection services.
The audit’s findings are the latest wrinkle in a controversy over fees Allen has collected from the cities for more than a decade. Last year, the fees became the subject of an investigation by the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and federal authorities, prompting commissioners to call for an audit of all tax commissioner’s accounts and to ask for Gov. Nathan Deal to intervene.
Commissioners contend that the payments from the cities, which Allen keeps as personal compensation, are contrary to a state law that took effect in 2007. The law stipulates that agreements to collect city taxes in counties with more than 50,000 parcels have to be made by the county governing authority, not the tax commissioner. Columbia County crossed the 50,000 threshold in 2009. Since then, Allen has collected more than $160,000 in additional compensation from Harlem and Grovetown – 2 percent of each city’s property taxes.
The audit also found that Allen was collecting credit card fees and non-sufficient funds check fees that were not being passed on to the county. Those fees totaled more than $39,000, according to the audit. In addition, the audit found “over/short” accounts for property taxes and motor vehicle taxes amounting to more than $29,000 that had not been paid to the county coffers. Also, more than $25,000 in checking account interest from three accounts had not been returned to the proper taxing authorities, auditors said.
State law states that tax commissioners are required each week to turn over “county taxes including, but not limited to, any interest, penalties, or other amounts due the county which they have collected during the week.”
Allen’s attorney, Douglas Chalmers Jr., did not respsond to a call for comment. Chalmers has said that Allen broke no law by collecting the fees for Grovetown and Harlem, and that she is willing to work with the county to resolve the situation.
Commission Chairman Ron Cross said he was frustrated by the audit findings.
“This is the same thing she was doing a few years ago when she was holding mailing fees from car tags,” he said.
Cross said the situation was discovered by auditors in December 2009. A report dated Dec. 9, 2009, from the accounting firm Mauldin and Jenkins stated that Allen had accumulated $203,000 in mailing fees from automobile tag payments that she had failed to remit to the county.
“It is our understanding that since postage is paid by the General Fund budget, these mail fees should be turned over to the General Fund of the County,” the report stated. “We recommend that these fees be paid over to the County General Fund as soon as possible.”
Not long after the issue was discovered, Cross said, the commission directed the county finance director to send a letter to Allen asking for the withheld mailing fees. That letter was submitted Dec. 16, 2009, according to county records.
She released the money several months later, only after Cross threatened to report the situation to the governor, he said.
“She just kept saying it was her money, it belonged to her department and she had plans for it,” he said. “I said, ‘Kay, we either got to get that money back today or I will call the governor.’ ”
After he threatened to inform the governor of the situation, Cross said, Allen relented and produced a check for the full amount that had been dated in January.
Cross said he expects the commision will seek to have all the funds discovered in the recent audit remitted to the proper authorities after the findings are finalized.