State fees not going to intended destination

ATLANTA,None — Each year Georgia collects millions of dollars in fees for various trust funds, everything from environmental cleanups to driver training for young teens, but Channel Two's Tom Regan has discovered that money actually is being spent in ways that have nothing to do with their original purpose.

One example is a tire cleanup fee drivers pay every time they put a new tire on their car. The money goes to the state, and it's intended to help fund the cleanup the millions of old tires that litter roadways and vacant lots. 

Regan found the fee isn't really helping people who live near a tire dump. Of the more than $6 million collected in tire fees last year, state records show not one dollar has gone to actually cleaning up tires. Instead, money went into the state's general fund.

"That baffles me. It makes me really angry. We pay tax dollars and it's being spent somewhere else," said Katie Corkren.

"We're just asking the General Assembly to put the trust back into the trust fund," said Will Wingate, of the Georgia Conservancy.

The tire cleanup fee is just one of many state fees that are spent in a way that was not intended. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation crime lab, which faces staff shortages, was supposed to get more than $1.7 million in fees last year tacked onto court fines. A GBI spokesman told Regan the agency didn't get any of that money.

The head of a government watchdog group said such fees are a backdoor tax used to fill holes in the state budget.

"It's not technically illegal, but it's irresponsible. It is the public trust. It's very similar to someone stealing out of an offering plate at church," said Kelly McKutchen with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

To help local 911 centers the state has been charging a $1.50 fee to pre-paid cellphone users. Documents showed the state has collected $26 million since the fee began in 2008, but Clint Mueller of the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia said, "Not a dime has gone back to upgrading the 911 centers."      

Perhaps no one is more upset over the state's practice of hijacking fees than Alan Brown.

"You just want to cry and go to the capital, and grab the dome and shake it and say, 'Wake up,'" said Brown. Brown's son Joshua died in car wreck that Brown said could have been avoided if Joshua had driver training in high school. Brown rallied legislators in 2005 to pass Joshua's Law. It adds a 5 percent fee to traffic tickets to fund free driving lessons on simulators.

Again, state records show, of the more than $10 million raised last year, none has gone for driver training.

"Life is about decisions," Brown said, "And our leaders have made a decision that money is more important than saving teenager's lives."

Brown said he will lobby legislators next year to pass an amendment that would prevent fees raised through Joshua's law from being diverted to the general fund. Similar legislation is in the works to ensure local 911 centers get money raised through pre-paid card fees.