Columbia County sheriff’s Capt. Steve Morris said the sheriff’s office had an ongoing investigation into “allegations” related to the Tax Commissioner’s office, but declined to say more or provide additional details.
However, part of the investigation appears focused on Allen’s contracts to collect taxes for the cities of Harlem and Grovetown. City and county officials confirmed that sheriff’s investigators have requested records related to those contracts, which might be contrary to state law.
County Attorney Doug Batchelor confirmed Friday that he had been asked to provide an opinion related to state law and the Tax Commissioner’s relationship with Harlem and Grovetown, which was given to the sheriff’s investigators last week.
According to documents acquired by The Augusta Chronicle through open records requests, Allen has been collecting taxes for Grovetown for the past 20 years. Harlem has records of payments made to Allen for the tax collection service dating back to at least 1999.
Grovetown City Administrator Shirley Beasley and Harlem City Manager Jason Rizner supplied copies of contracts signed by Allen for the tax collection service. The cities have agreed to pay Allen 2 percent of total property taxes billed. This year that amounted to $36,000 – $29,000 from Grovetown and $7,000 from Harlem – that Allen pocketed as personal compensation for her services.
Over the past five years, those payments to Allen have totaled more than $160,000.
Allen’s total compensation in 2013, including the payments from Harlem and Grovetown, came in at $171,597, according to documents acquired by The Chronicle.
Allen said she is allowed to collect and keep those payments under state law.
“Absolutely, that is my money,” she said. “I have a contract with them. Where else can they get that kind of service for that amount of money?”
State law allows tax commissioners to enter into such agreements with cities and receive direct compensation, but only in counties that have fewer than 50,000 parcels. In counties with more than 50,000 parcels, the county itself must enter into such agreements and can, in turn, pay the tax commissioner for providing the service.
Columbia County has more than 55,000 parcels. Officials say the county probably crossed the 50,000 parcel threshold four or five years ago.
Like most officials, Batchelor said he learned of Allen’s arrangement in October.
That’s when Commission Chairman Ron Cross and County Administrator Scott Johnson said they first learned Allen was getting paid to collect taxes for the cities. Both declined to express an opinion on the situation, but confirmed an investigation was underway.
The investigation appears to have been initiated not long after Allen fired Deputy Tax Commissioner Dwight Johnson.
Johnson – an employee of 15 years – was fired Oct. 18 after he returned to work from 12 weeks of medical leave. Allen said the dismissal stemmed from $55 in cash that went missing from her office in July.
Allen said the missing money and subsequent dismissal was related to the sheriff’s inquiry but declined to elaborate.
“I will tell you that started an investigation,” Allen said. “That’s all I can say about that.”
According to Allen and documents in Johnson’s personnel file, the $55 was in a bank bag sent from the Tax Commissioner’s Appling office to the Evans office on July 5. The money never made it to the bank.
Allen said she found out about the situation when she returned from vacation the following week. She said Johnson couldn’t explain what happened to the money and failed to disclose he had taken another employee with him to the bank to make a deposit.
Johnson denies any deception on his part and admits the $55 was his responsibility although he doesn’t know what happened to it.
He claims the controversy over the missing cash was the culmination of a series of events that led to his ouster.
Johnson said his work relationship with Allen had been deteriorating for months and had really turned sour in May after he told her he intended to run for the Tax Commissioner seat in 2016.
“She always said, ‘I’ve got five other people in line if you don’t like the way I do things,’” said Johnson, who declined to discuss the investigation against Allen.
Allen, however, said the firing has nothing to do with politics. She said Johnson’s dismissal was entirely linked to his job performance.
“The missing money was the tip of the iceberg,” she said.