How much money would it take to make all your problems go away?
For Columbia County – and for one problem in particular – it cost $80,650.
That amount represents half of more than $160,000 in disputed fees collected by Kay Allen, Columbia County’s now-former tax commissioner. Her resignation was announced Tuesday as a term of her settlement with the county. Her husband, District 3 Commissioner Charles Allen, also resigned.
Since 2009, Kay Allen had been paid fees by the cities of Harlem and Grovetown for providing tax collection services. But a state law that took effect several years ago changed many such agreements allowing that additional lucrative compensation.
When Columbia County officials recently found out about Allen’s continued collections even after the law changed, they wanted that money returned to the county. Allen contended it was still legally hers to collect.
So the county will end up getting just half of it back, under a settlement agreement struck between the Allens and the Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.
It left many people scratching their heads. Why give back just half the money? It’s either all the county’s money or it isn’t.
The $80,650 apparently represents the cost of Columbia County avoiding a protracted legal battle over interpreting a state tax-collection law. Applying laborious forensic detail to each penny, and who’s entitled to it, would require a lot of legal hours – all billable to taxpayers.
With the county no longer pursuing a civil case against the Allens, the probability drops of another governmental entity being invigorated enough to mount a criminal case.
But here’s another question: Why even allow this particular tax law to begin with?
It takes a heightened level of professional expertise to navigate the often difficult process of determining and collecting taxes. But that expertise doesn’t rise to the level of allowing a tax commissioner to pocket a cut of the take.
That’s likely the reason why many Georgia counties – including Richmond County – don’t allow their tax commissioners to enter into such dubious arrangements. The office is collecting the people’s money, not the commissioner in charge.
The law was tweaked a few years ago supposedly to help prevent tax commissioners from abusing this overly generous privilege. But in the wake of the Kay Allen fiasco, state lawmakers need to consider whether the privilege should be extended to tax commissioners at all.
A lot of Columbia County taxpayers are fuming over this incident. If they feel robbed, the effect really is twofold. The public also seems to have been robbed of a full explanation from the former tax commissioner herself.
In that sense, Columbia County’s problem hasn’t totally gone away. Until all the details are thrown into full sunlight, murmurs are bound to persist about whether other aspects of this case are being covered up.
The Allens owe at least that much to the people they used to serve.