Commission Chairman Ron Cross said the ongoing investigation by the FBI and the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office into Allen’s agreements for additional compensation from Grovetown and Harlem was “an unfortunate situation,” but something the commission needed to address.
The vote to authorize the audit was unanimous except for Commissioner Charles Allen, who recused himself because he is married to the tax commissioner.
Commissioner Trey Allen said the audit should go beyond the scope of regular audits of county departments – including the Tax Commissioner’s Office – which already occur.
County Administrator Scott Johnson said he will select one of the accounting firms the county already uses to perform the audit.
“I don’t anticipate going to a third-party firm,” Johnson said. “I just need to determine who has the most expertise in this area.”
The controversy over Allen’s contracts with the cities has been percolating behind the scenes since October, when officials became aware that sheriff’s investigators were working with the FBI to look into allegations against the tax commissioner.
Over the past two decades, Allen has collected thousands in additional pay for providing tax services to the two municipalities. In the past five years, those payments have meant more than $160,000 in direct compensation for Allen.
Grovetown and Harlem officials have said they were under the impression the payments for services were going to the county budget, not to Allen’s pocketbook.
“We thought we were paying the county,” said Grovetown Mayor George James III, who attended Tuesday’s meeting.
James said that as far as he knew, Grovetown never filed any Internal Revenue Service documents or supplied Allen with any IRS forms that would customarily be associated with income payments.
The city’s most recent check for tax collection services, dated Oct. 5 for $29,000, was made out to “Columbia County Tax Commission Attention: Kay Allen.”
Allen has acknowledged that she collects additional compensation and maintains that state law allows her to do so. Other tax commissioners around the state also have such agreements, but not all.
State law, which was enacted in 2007, allows such direct compensation for tax commissioners, 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 had passed the 50,000-parcel threshold by 2009, officials said.
State Rep. Wendell Willard, R-Sandy Springs, who wrote the 2007 legislation, said the intent was to stop tax commissioners from benefitting from deals such as the agreements made by Allen.
“It’s improper,” Willard said. “That is using (county resources) to benefit the tax commissioner personally.”