County investigates tax collector for wrongly waiving fees

VALDOSTA, Ga. (AP) — A south Georgia tax collector has been waiving penalties and interest for some residents and not others, even though county commissioners had told him to stop.

The Valdosta Daily Times reports Lowndes County Tax Commissioner Rodney Cain waived almost $3 million in penalties and interest owed the the county.

Tax commissioners can only waive fees with permission from county commissioners, but public records obtained by The Valdosta Daily Times showed Cain waived close to $3 million without permission from the beginning of 2017 through May 13 of this year.

Lowndes County Commission Chairman Bill Slaughter said the county has launched a forensic audit to determine the exact amount owed.

Cain was expressly denied authorization to grant waivers on at least two occasions. A letter and an email show Slaughter specifically told Cain he did not have the authority.

Cain declined interview requests, although he said on Facebook that the story was “extremely misleading," saying he was justified in waiving most fees because a letter had been postmarked on time. He said his office waived about $90,000 a year “that we consider hardship cases and or clerical mistakes such as a bill being mailed to the wrong address.”

Cain was elected November 2016. He’s running for re-election this year and faces Republican primary opposition on June 9.

Slaughter sent a letter Aug. 5, 2019, informing Cain he did not have the authority to forgo penalties and interest.

Seven months later, Slaughter sent an email response on March 24 to Cain declining his request to waive penalties and interest for property taxes due April 1. Cain agreed saying, “I totally agree; our feelings on this issue are mutual.”

Yet he continued the practice, with emails showing he waived some penalties and not others.

“I want the collections of taxes to be applied fairly to all citizens in Lowndes County, and that is not the case when you are waiving penalties and interest,” Slaughter said. “You are basically selecting the individuals you choose to waive those penalties.”

The most recent county resolution on file allowing the practice in Lowndes was in 1995 for then-tax commissioner Paul Sumner, according to a county statement. Mary Nell Robertson, Sumner’s successor and Cain’s predecessor, told The Times she received a resolution to waive penalties and interest every four years during her tenure stretching from 1999 to 2016. After an open records request, the county said it has no record of those resolutions.

Some tax commissioners choose not to waive fees.

The money, if collected, would have been distributed among the county, city and school districts in Lowndes County.

District Attorney Brad Shealy said there's no criminal penalty for laws Cain may have violated. That means county commissioners would have to seek a civil court order instructing Cain to stop. The state Revenue Department could also investigate. Tabetha DuPriest, Worth County tax commissioner and president of the Georgia Association of Tax Officials, says only Gov. Brian Kemp could remove Cain.

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