By Joel Hall
Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin was handcuffed in front of his Jonesboro office and put into a Clayton County Police car, after refusing to surrender his county-issued, take-home vehicles to authorities.
According to Clayton County Police Department spokesperson, Lt. Tina Daniel, Baskin was arrested on Friday morning around 8:50 a.m., in the parking lot of the Historic Clayton County Courthouse, after standing between a county-issued, 2006 Ford Five Hundred and officers attempting to tow and retrieve the vehicle on behalf of the county.
The car was one of two vehicles assigned to the Tax Commissioner's Office specifically targeted in a new vehicle-use policy adopted by the Board of Commissioners (BOC) on June 29, following the adoption of the county's fiscal 2011 budget.
"Because of this budget cycle, the county has had to make some cutbacks," Daniel said. "Many were asked to turn in take-home cars ... Terry Baskin was one of those people asked to do that. He was asked to give us the keys and let us take the car, and he said he could not do that. Mr. Baskin placed himself between the car and the wrecker, so the officer basically detained him and put him in handcuffs for his protection and ours."
Daniel said Baskin did not resist arrest, and was released shortly after the arrest with a citation for obstruction of an officer. Baskin was not taken to jail, and returned to his office later that morning, she said.
A second 2006 Ford Five Hundred was retrieved by Clayton County Police from Baskin's home on Friday, according to Chief Deputy Tax Commissioner Jim Grant. He said the cars were purchased using money from the Tax Commissioner's fiscal 2005 budget.
According to Solicitor General Tasha Mosley, obstruction is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to one year in jail, or on probation, and up to a $1,000 fine. She said Baskin had not yet been assigned a date to appear in Clayton County State Court, but said the case would likely go to a higher court to determine who ultimately controls the vehicles.
"It will take a superior court judge to determine who has control of this property," Mosley said. "If he controls that equipment, then there is no way he can obstruct that officer. That's the question that needs to be answered before this goes any further."
The incident stems from a resolution adopted by the BOC on June 29, which set forth the termination of the Clayton Regional Law Enforcement Academy, and directed Clayton County Chief of Staff Alex Cohilas to review the county's pension plan and vehicle-use policy for potential savings. In that resolution, Baskin's department was specifically requested to return the two take-home vehicles, no later than July 1.
Baskin, who was present at the June 29 meeting, questioned the board as to why the resolution targeted his department. On July 6, after the board's demands were not met, the board adopted a second, more specific ordinance demanding that Baskin's office return the vehicles to the Clayton County Fleet Maintenance Department no later than 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 7.
The resolution further directed the Chief of Staff to "take whatever action is available to recover said vehicles and cause their return."
On Wednesday, according to county Fleet Maintenance Director Wade Starr, the Tax Commissioner's office returned a 1994 Ford Crown Victoria and a 1995 Chevy Suburban to the Fleet Maintenance Department -- two older vehicles on loan to the department from the county, but not the two cars the board had requested.
Grant said that on Thursday morning, his office was informed by Cohilas that the county wanted the Ford Five Hundreds, and by Thursday evening, county attorneys notified the department that it was banned from using the county's gas pumps, and was dropped from the county's vehicle insurance.
"The tax commissioner needed the vehicles to do the tax business, so he couldn't turn them in," Grant said. He said the two cars are used regularly by the department to perform tax collections, declare properties for tax sales, file liens, and pull deeds. "On Thursday evening, the county attorney informed us that they had canceled all use of the gas pump and canceled all liability coverage on those two vehicles. If we drove them, we were totally liable."
On Friday morning, officers forcibly recovered the two vehicles. Grant said no conversations took place between the county and the tax commissioner's office up to that time, to discuss the needs of the department.
"I'm sure they ran the numbers, but they didn't share them with us," Grant said. "We thought the Chief of Staff would come by here and have a conversation with us about how to conduct the county business. We didn't expect the police. That's a sad sight when a constitutional officer is arrested for trying to keep the equipment he needs to do his job."
Grant said Baskin has served as tax commissioner for six years. Baskin was reached at his office on Friday, but deferred comments on the matter to his attorney, Steve Frey. Clayton County Public Information Officer Jamie Carlington spoke on Cohilas' behalf on Friday. She said several departments had been asked to make cutbacks and that Baskin had been sufficiently warned to return the take-home vehicles.
"Commissioner Baskin received a copy of the resolution that clearly stated that they needed to retrieve the vehicles, so there was communication with Commissioner Baskin prior to retrieving of the vehicles," Carlington said. "There are other departments that are having their cars reviewed through this process, so it's not just them. All of this is part of the reduction in our budget that the Board of Commissioners looked through in order to avoid cutting employee salaries by 4 percent."
Commissioners Wole Ralph, Sonna Singleton, and Gail Hambrick, who approved the ordinance to retrieve Baskin's take-home vehicles, issued a joint press statement on Friday justifying the retrieval: "Like our counterparts throughout this state, we have had to cut programs, cut services, and unfortunately, we have had to layoff personnel. The Tax Commissioner and his deputy have personally assigned take-home vehicles with heated seats. Frankly, we could not justify cutting people and services, and at the same time, allowing these individuals the luxury of driving county cars home, using taxpayer gas, without having some after-hour responsibility."
Frey said the board's actions may stem from a June fund-raiser Baskin helped host for Shegale Crute, who is Ralph's ex-wife, and is currently running against Singleton for the District 1 Commissioner seat.
"He hosted a fund-raiser for Shegale Crute, which is Wole Ralph's former wife," Frey said. "Shegale is running against Sonna Singleton. Is it revenge? I don't know, but I wouldn't put anything past them.
"After talking to the commissioner [Baskin], I am unaware of any incident in which he has misused money or misused his car," Frey added. "There has also been no discussion of the liability it will cost the county to have employees use their own vehicles to do county work. After raising the millage rate, it is inconceivable that they would hamstring the tax commissioner in collecting taxes. The savings they may perceive, may be washed by the inability of the commissioner to do his job."
Ralph said the new vehicle policy, as well as other cutbacks made on June 29, have been done "in the spirit of dealing with a tough economy." When questioned about the motives for retrieving the vehicles from Baskin, Singleton said via e-mail, "My understanding is that Mr. Baskin was arrested for obstructing a police officer. This incident has nothing to do with me. I have no other comment."
Crute, who confirmed Baskin's participation in the June fund-raiser, said the board's actions were "punitive" and went "outside of the powers of what we elect our commissioners to do.
"It's a very slippery slope when you begin to dismantle the powers of constitutional officers," she said. "This is a larger problem that exists on the commission. They don't know their boundaries."
Edmondson, who voted against the new vehicle policy, said he is "disappointed" in the way Baskin's concerns were treated and argued that the budget was balanced prior to the vote dealing with the vehicle policy.
"We balanced the budget before we considered this," Edmondson said. "Any argument that says this was done to balance the budget is a false argument. Those two cars simply go back into the motor pool. This is not a budget consideration and the impact to the budget is minimal, because they are still in service. Prior to the vote, the tax commissioner had not had a conversation with the board about the change in the vehicle policy. I do not think he was treated with the respect somebody in his position deserves."
BOC Chairman Eldrin Bell, who voted against the new vehicle policy, could not be reached for comment.