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Baskin now liable when using county cars

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

In an unexpected move, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted 4-0 to send a letter to Clayton County Tax Commissioner Terry Baskin, informing him that he is responsible for two cars at the center of an ongoing debate between the board, and the tax official.

The action came after an executive session. Commissioner Michael Edmondson was not present for the vote. He did not come back into the board room with the other commissioners, after the executive session.

Baskin, and his attorney, Steve Frey, could not be reached for comment late Tuesday night.

In early July, police arrested Baskin for refusing to turn over the two cars, at the direction of the Board of Commissioners. He was released, and received a citation that same day. Police took possession of the cars, however. County officials argued that the cars were county property. Baskin countered by arguing that the vehicles were paid for with funds from his office's budget, and were, therefore, his office's property.

In August, Clayton County Solicitor General Tasha Mosley ruled that the county did not have the authority to confiscate the cars, however, because they were the property of the tax commissioner's office.

On Tuesday, County attorney Michael Smith said Baskin, and not the county, now will be liable for any accidents involving the vehicles, and the tax commissioner will have to pay for fuel and vehicle maintenance out of his office's funds.

"The board directed me to send a letter to the tax commissioner, informing him about the liability for operating it, if there's an accident," Smith said. "They also directed fleet maintenance to not maintain the vehicles, or gas them up."

The move is just the latest action in an ongoing battle over the vehicles. The board's vote was unexpected, because the issue was not on the board's agenda for the meeting.

Not many people were actually left to witness the vote, as most people left when the board went into executive session. So, when the vote did happen, there were only a handful of county employees, a community member and a reporter around to witness the vote.

Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph said the county has a policy that forbids county employees from taking county vehicles home, unless they might be needed in an emergency, such as a police officer. He said that is why the cars were taken from Baskin.

"It is the board's policy that they cannot take their vehicles home, and Mr. Baskin has refused to formally acknowledge that policy," Ralph said.

The vice chairman also said, however, that the impetus behind Tuesday's vote was that County Fleet Maintenance Director Wade Starr told him Baskin "stole" the keys to the vehicles from the Fleet Maintenance Department, and was using the cars without board approval.

"So, the board indicated to Mr. Baskin, that it was not the policy of the board to cover unauthorized use of county vehicles," Ralph said. "And as such, we wouldn't be paying for gas and maintenance for the cars."

In the past, officials from the Tax Commissioner's Office have said the vehicles were used on a regular basis, by department employees, to do the work of the office, including collecting taxes, declaring properties for sales, filing liens and pulling deeds.

In August, Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell said the board had agreed to give the cars back to Baskin, with the stipulation that he not use them for personal use. Bell, at the time, said Baskin had agreed to that arrangement.

In other action, the Board of Commissioners voted 4-1 to approve the backing of bonds, worth $48 million, that are to be taken out by the Clayton County Hospital Authority to restructure debts owned for the operation of Southern Regional Health System. Bell cast the lone vote against the bonds.

County Attorney Smith said that, last year, the commission approved backing $39.68 million in bonds for the hospital, with $7.6 million, per year, in county funds. He said the new bonds would cover $8.34 million in additional debt, and the re-financing of the $39.68 million from last year.

"We're banking on the hospital being able to pay its debt," Smith said. "Otherwise, it would be on the county to pay back the debt ... All of it."

Ralph said the issue at stake is not whether the county should back the bonds. "We were already doing that," he said. The issue, and the reason why the board needed to back the latest bonds, he said, was to "help the hospital get a more favorable interest rate" on its debt.

Ralph, and County Finance Director Angela Jackson, have been sitting on the Clayton County Hospital Authority Board, since the commission's initial decision to back the hospital's bonds. Ralph said he was assigned to sit on the hospital authority board, by the commission, to monitor the financial health of the authority.

Bell said, however, he had reservations about putting the county in a position where it might have to take responsibility for the hospital authority's debt. He said Ralph and Jackson were not providing him with regular reports on the hospital authority's finances, although Ralph said he was receiving those reports from the authority.

Bell also said he reviewed the hospital's fiscal year 2009 audit, which he said showed that the hospital lost approximately $30 million during that year.

"If they lost that amount of money, in one year, [and] we expect them to pay back these bonds, then I'm concerned the taxpayers may have to pay, out of their own pockets, for the operation of the hospital in the future," he said.