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Hall officials want $25,000 from county clerk of courts

POSTED: May 4, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Hall County officials confirmed Tuesday that they want Clerk of Courts Dwight Wood to pay the county $25,000 for using county workers to process passports while he took home the fees.

The practice is legal, and Wood is not required to reimburse the county.

After a story by The Times revealed that Wood has kept the fees for years, Hall County commissioners asked Human Resources Director Charley Nix and Finance Director Michaela Thompson to decide a "reasonable amount" that Wood should pay the county.

Wood and other county employees began processing passport applications in 1991. Since then, Wood has kept the fees. In 2007, he received $86,000 from passport fees, along with his $122,000 salary as elected clerk of courts for state and superior courts.

Earlier this month, Commissioner Bobby Banks suggested that Wood pay the county 75 percent of the fees he received in 2007. Banks said all passport fees should be funneled into Hall County’s general fund, and the proposed $25,000 is not enough.

"Basically, he’s stealing services from the county," Banks said.

Thompson said she and Nix determined that $25,000 would compensate for the amount of time county employees spent processing passports, which took them away from other county duties.

Wood refrained from comment Tuesday because, he said, the county had not contacted him about the matter.

County Attorney Bill Blalock said the clerk of court’s practice of retaining fees from the passport processing service is consistent with state and federal law.

While attorney Ashley Bell agrees the practice is legal, he said Wood’s practice of using county employees to process the passports may not be.

"The rub is he’s using county employees for private gain," Bell said. "It’s legal for him to collect those fees; it’s the means that’s questionable. He’s using employees who are paid for by taxpayers to do the work.

"My problem is that (the county commission) is doing nothing to stop money from being collected today and tomorrow," he added.

Bell said the county commission can’t stop Wood from collecting the passport fees, but they can stop county employees from processing the passports.

"The real culprit is the law itself," Bell said.

The General Assembly must take action for the law to change.



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