Chattooga County officials fight over tens of thousands in birth certificate fees

Chattooga County officials fight over tens of thousands in birth certificate fees

September 17th, 2017 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Chattooga County Probate Court Judge Jon Payne

Chattooga County Probate Court Judge Jon Payne

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

A couple of Chattooga County, Ga., elected officials are bickering over $76,000.

About a month ago, Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters visited Probate Court Judge Jon Payne's office. He told Payne the county's auditor recently noticed something odd: Payne had cut checks to himself, worth $35,813 in 2015 and $40,410 in 2016.

Payne said the money came from the fees people paid for copies of birth and death certificates. He told the commissioner he was entitled to keep it. The commissioner told him he wasn't.

"He said, 'Why do you think you are supposed to make more money than I do?'" Payne recalled this week. "I said, 'I don't think I'm supposed to. But I'm a heck of a lot better looking than you are. I work a heck of a lot harder than you do. And I take a heck of a lot better care of the people than you do.'"

According to the Department of Community Affairs' 2015 survey of elected officials, Winters makes about $104,000 a year. Payne makes $98,000. That doesn't include the bonus checks.

As a probate judge, Payne keeps records ranging from marriage licenses to gun carry permits. But he has a second role as the county's vital records custodian. And as such, he also keeps the birth and death certificates. And that is where the extra money comes in.

Document: An Aug. 31...

An Aug. 31 letter from attorney Albert Palmour to Chattooga County Commissioner Jason Winters, on behalf of Probate Court Judge Jon Payne.

One particular statewide change has brought in more money for such records. In 2012, the Georgia Department of Driver Services began requiring people to bring a "Primary Identification" document when they renewed or applied for a new license. Among the acceptable documents? A birth certificate.

Payne, who has been in office since 1975, said he has seen an increase in customers since then.

Georgia law states that the local custodian can keep some money from the fees collected on vital records. But Kevin Holder, the state's executive director of probate court judges, said a commissioner can pass an ordinance or resolution putting a cap on Payne's revenue: $7,500 a year. (About one-fifth of what Payne took home in 2015 and 2016.)

Payne said Winters has never gone down that route in the past. What happens when there is no established ordinance or resolution? Holder said Thursday that he wasn't sure. But Nancy Nydam, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Public Health, said some judges in the state keep all the fees paid for vital records; it really depends on their agreement with the county.

Like in Walker County, Chattooga County operates with a sole commissioner form of government, meaning Winters calls all the shots. On Aug. 21, he wrote Payne a letter, telling him he couldn't keep the money anymore. He needed to give the revenue to the county clerk on the 10th day of every month.

"No further payments will be made to you," Winters wrote.

Ten days later, attorney Albert Palmour wrote a letter back on behalf of Payne.

"I would ask that you formally apologize to Judge Payne in person and in the media as your actions have disparaged his character and the respectability that Judge Payne has worked so hard in his many years in office to gain and garner," Palmour wrote.

He added: "I personally find your actions reprehensible."

Since then, Palmour said, he has heard no response from Winters. The commissioner, meanwhile, did not comment for this story. He said he had to step into a meeting when a reporter called him Thursday morning — though his assistant later emailed the Times Free Press a copy of his letter to Payne.

Payne said he would be open to negotiating a deal with Winters on how much money he can take home, but now he is upset with the commissioner for how he approached the problem. He said Winters tried to tell him what to do, rather than approach him for a reasonable discussion.

He believes Winters is really doing what he is doing to keep political pressure off himself.

"The commissioner raised our taxes 20 percent," Payne said. "And here it is a few days later: He finds this to pounce on and throw me under the bus. He wouldn't talk to me about it; he wouldn't try to come to an agreement. He's trying to blow up smoke and get the attention off of him and onto me."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.