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Hall County court clerk legally pockets passport fees

Increase in requests leads to extra, legal income for Wood

POSTED: April 10, 2008 5:00 a.m.
ROBIN MICHENER NATHAN The Times/

Deputy court clerk April Dunwoodie helps Keith Gossett apply for a passport Friday afternoon at the Hall County Courthouse.

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When Hall County Clerk of Court Dwight Wood began processing passport applications in his office in 1991, they came trickling in a few per week, offering a modest supplement to his regular salary from fees of $7.50 each he kept as personal compensation.

In recent years, with new federal regulations, increased acceptance fees and a massive growth in the number of children in Hall County born to foreign immigrants, that trickle has become a flood, and given Wood what amounts to a salary supplement of nearly 70 percent his base pay.

Wood, who in 2007 made $122,000 as elected clerk of courts for state and superior courts, made another $86,000 from passport acceptance fees. That amount was nearly double the $48,000 he collected in 2006.

Last year, when the acceptance fee reached a high of $30, Wood's office was processing more than 250 passport applications per month.

Wood defends the practice of keeping the fee, which was lowered this year to $25, noting that Georgia law clearly states that fees for federal work are to be collected by the clerk of court as compensation for performing the duties.

"It's always been legal and above board," Wood said. "(The amount) has just grown because of these regulations and the diversity in Hall County."

Wood said he collected passport fees of about $40,000 in 2005 and $20,000 the year prior.

"I think last year will be the peak," Wood said, noting that the passports are good for 10 years and that the initial rush may be drawing to a close. "I don't know that there will be as many this year."

Wood's office and the U.S. Post Office on Limestone Parkway are the only two locations in Hall County that offer passport processing. The local post office processes passport applications from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, with the $25 fee going to the post office, but not to the postmaster, said Michael Miles, a spokesman for the postal service.

Wood says when the post office quits taking applications each day, "they send them to us."

"Believe me, I don't advertise it," he said. "I would gladly like to see another post office or even the probate judge ask the Department of State to be permitted to be a passport agent in Hall County, simply because of the volume we have."

Probate Court Judge Patti Cornett, who took office in 1993, said she looked into processing passport applications until she learned Wood was already offering the service. "Two people doing it in the courthouse would be unnecessary, considering that the post office does it," Cornett said.

Cornett said at the time, when her job paid around $30,000 a year, she was "interested in anything that would bring in extra money. It beat working at night."

Wood said he began performing the duties "as a service to the citizens."

"I don't continue to do it for the money, I continue to do it as a service," he said. "I think it would be a disservice if I stopped."

Liberty County Clerk of Court Barry Wilkes, who serves as president of the Georgia Association of Passport Agents, estimates that of the state's 159 counties, more than 70 offer passport processing through the clerks of courts offices.

Wilkes said the average clerk of court in Georgia "does nowhere near the volume" that Wood's office has experienced in recent years.

"On the average, in counties like Liberty County, the amount of income generating from passports is so nominal that nobody cares," Wilkes said. "It's an anomaly in (Hall) County."

Wilkes noted that in the case of many newer Hispanic residents, their child born in the United States is their one link to citizenship, and a passport is seen as further legitimizing that child's citizenship. "I think that may be the case in Hall County," Wilkes said.

The vast majority of passports processed in Wood's office are for Hispanic children. Hall County's population is estimated to be at least 24 percent Hispanic, according to 2004 Census data. In addition, new, post-9/11 Homeland Security regulations have made passports required in more instances, Wilkes noted.

Wood's office is one of the few clerk of courts offices in a metropolitan area with a large Latino population that processes passport applications. Neither Gwinnett or Cobb County offers the service.
Cobb County Clerk of Court Jay Stephenson said he chose not to offer the service because he didn't have the staff to spare. Stephenson estimated it would take two full-time employees on his staff of 103 to handle the workload.

Wood says the passport work is not a strain on his staff of 50. "I jump in and help them do a lot of it," Wood said, adding that he has worked late nights and weekends to keep up with the volume of applications. "I probably touch every one that comes in, in one form or another."

Wilkes said the law is clear that the acceptance fee goes to the clerk of court. "It doesn't say ‘you may collect it,' it says ‘you shall,'" Wilkes said.

Still, some clerks in Georgia choose to keep the money as a supplement to their pay, while others return a portion to the county, Wilkes said.

"Not all keep it as personal compensation," he said. "In counties that are really poor, they'll take that money and use it to buy equipment."

Wilkes says the small amount of acceptance fees his office collects goes into a technology fund for his office, though he must still report the fees to the IRS as personal revenue and expenditures.

Wilkes said the matter of what to do with the money is debatable. "We've had lots of discussions about how to dispose of these moneys, and I don't think anybody agrees on it," he said.

Wilkes, who knows Wood personally, said "what's happened to him is he's had this tremendous rush by individuals to get passports."

"I don't think he intended for passports to be a major business for him, I think it just turned out to be that because the sheer number of people coming into his office," Wilkes said. "I don't believe he or any other clerks ever anticipated that."

Wood makes no apologies for the financial windfall he's seen as a result of the passport acceptance fees he's permitted to keep.

"When I started doing it 17 years ago, I was doing it as a public service," Wood said. "We're a public service office. I don't think I should be the one to force our citizens to drive out of county for a passport."



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