Now that former Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen has resigned following accusations that she improperly profited from contracts to collect taxes for Harlem and Grovetown, there is a familiar face hoping to fill her seat.
Former Chief Deputy Tax Commissioner Dwight Johnson, an employee of the tax commissioner’s office for 15 years and the whistleblower behind the FBI’s investigation of Allen, said it is time for someone with experience and honesty to head that department.
“There needs to be some sunshine in that office,” Johnson said. “There needs to be some openness and there needs to be some education on how to save on taxes. None of that was going on when I was there and I guess it wasn’t going on because, frankly, the more taxes that Kay (Allen) collected, the more commission she received.”
Johnson, who was fired in October, claims that his relationship with Allen began deteriorating after he admitted to her that he was planning on running for the tax commissioner’s seat in 2016.
However, Johnson’s personnel file states he was fired because Allen held him responsible for a missing bank bag that allegedly contained $55 that never made it the Evans government center from the Appling office in July.
Johnson, 43, insists the allegations regarding the missing bank bag are not true.
“I really feel like, unfortunately, the whole reason for my termination was a farce,” Johnson said. “If you look at my history from the human resources department’s perspective, I got promotions every time there was an available position.”
Each year, Johnson said he received a salary increase and he was eventually promoted all the way up to second in command in the tax commissioner’s office.
“I don’t think you would give a poor employee increases every year as well as promotions up to the point of second in command if you didn’t think he was doing a good job,” Johnson said. “So that’s why I have really discounted the whole $55 issue. That is not the reason why I was terminated, even though that is the official reason.”
Johnson believes that Allen was desperately looking for any reason to fire him and that’s when he thinks she “concocted” the missing $55 bank bag.
“To me it was a last-ditch effort,” Johnson said. “I don’t know. I can’t really comment on her mindset because it wasn’t the mindset of someone thinking rationally. It was an irrational decision and irrational actions that led to this.”
When Johnson heard that Kay Allen and her husband, District 3 Columbia County Commissioner Charles Allen, had resigned from their positions on March 4, he said he couldn’t help but feel sorry for the couple.
Johnson said he felt particularly bad when local attorney Jack Long, who represented the Allens during the March 4 meeting, told the Columbia County Board of Commissioners that Charles Allen was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“The revelation of Mr. Allen’s prostate cancer saddened me,” Johnson said. “As far as their resignations, all I can say is, people make mistakes. That doesn’t mean they are terrible people. And I’m not going to say that they are. But, at the same time, I was abused.”
During the final months that Johnson worked for Kay Allen, he alleges that she abused her authority over him by demanding that he performed demeaning work throughout the office.
“She started giving me these menial tasks to do,” Johnson said, adding that he was frequently told to dump the trash, pick up food for the office and unload 28-pound boxes filled with the tag shipments.
Johnson, who was making $78,000 a year, said the “straw that broke the camel’s back” was a bizarre request Allen made to him in October, only days before he was terminated from his position.
“She told me to report to Kroger,” Johnson said, explaining that Kay Allen told him to report to a local Kroger grocery store wearing his work clothes and walk around the store for eight hours.
At the time, Johnson felt like he didn’t have any other choice but to follow his boss’ directions.
“That was abuse,” Johnson said, adding that if he is elected to office he will never allow employees to be treated so poorly. “I have learned a lot about how not to act, but at the same time I have also learned a lot about the human psyche in that, when you work with people eight hours a day, you develop relationships.”
Ever since Johnson began working in the tax commissioner’s office in 1998, he explained that Kay Allen was his boss and he developed a dedication to her that was practically on a “canine level.”
He would do almost anything for her, Johnson said.
“We were very personal. I considered her a personal friend,” he said. “She would give me her credit card to go shopping for her husband in Atlanta. That is how close we were. She would ask me to do those kinds of things and, of course, what do you do when your boss asks you to do something?”
Oftentimes at the tax commissioner’s office, Johnson said he felt his job was in jeopardy if he didn’t follow Kay Allen’s instructions.
“She always told me, ‘If you don’t like how I do business, there are five other guys waiting in line for your job,’” Johnson said. “So it was kind of a threat.”
That is no way to run a public office, Johnson said.
“With relationships you develop at work, you are really to remain professional, but at the same time we can have fun,” he said. “A fun environment to come to work is important. You want people with smiles on their faces that are happy to be there. And when you are talking about collecting taxes, you have to really be good at doing that.”
His experience in the tax commissioner’s office has taught him how to be a better boss, Johnson said.
“I feel like the people need someone who is going to do an honest, good job and also somebody who is approachable and will talk to the people and help the people,” Johnson said. “And to be honest, I don’t think there is anyone in this county that could do a better job than me.”
It appears that a special election to replace Kay Allen may not occur until November, but Johnson said he is prepared for the opportunity whenever the election is held.
“I’m actually ready to embrace what everyone has told me over several years, that they would like to see me in that position,” Johnson said, adding that he has spent the last 15 years developing a solid relationship with state and federal agencies and the Georgia Department of Revenue. “I’ve been involved in every phase of the tax commissioner’s position from the bottom to the top. I started in 1998 as delinquent tax officer and then moved my way up to deputy tag agent over motor vehicles and then to chief deputy tax commissioner. So I have pretty much handled all facets of the office.”
When asked how long he was aware of allegations that Allen was personally profiting from the contracts with Harlem and Grovetown, Johnson said Steve Adams, then an employee in the accounting division of the tax commissioner’s office, informed him a few years ago that he had some concerns about the manner in which the money was being collected.
Ironically, Adams was sworn in as the new deputy tax chief in December.
But, at the time, Johnson said that he asked Kay Allen about some of Adams’ concerns.
Kay Allen allegedly told Johnson that Adams was misinformed and that she had a “right to that money,” Johnson said.
Johnson said that Kay Allen told him that she could take the money personally or distribute the money for collecting the cities’ tax digest to her staff.
Considering the office’s frontline employees weren’t paid very much, Johnson said he asked Kay Allen if she could use the money to increase those employees’ salaries.
“It was like I slapped her in the face,” Johnson said told the Metro Spirit in December. “She got upset about that. And she basically said she collects it, she is the tax commissioner and she decides where it goes. So, I left it alone.”
When Adams continued to ask questions about which county fund these checks should be deposited in, Johnson said Kay Allen directed all of those checks to be delivered to Johnson’s mailbox instead.
“This is what threw up a red flag for me,” Johnson told the Metro Spirit. “She told me, ‘From now on, I’m going to move this to your mailbox and when you get these checks, just put them on my desk, but don’t open them.’”
Looking back on the situation now, Johnson believes Kay Allen was clearly wrong in keeping the money from the cities’ contracts.
“My feelings about the contracts with Harlem and Grovetown is obviously the law should have been followed,” Johnson said. “Next, I feel that the monies should have been sent to the county and she should have worked with the county commissioners to determine where those monies needed to be put.”
Instead, Kay Allen apparently personally profited from those contracts when her employees were doing all the work and the other cities were paying for it, Johnson said.
“Harlem has the highest millage rate in the county. Grovetown has the second highest rate,” Johnson said. “Of course, the board of commissioners, as the governing authority, would be the one to determine where that money would go, but I would like to be able to make some recommendations as to where I feel that money should go. It certainly should not go into the pocket of one person.”
Instead, Johnson said those funds should help benefit the office that is performing the work.
“It should go into the pockets of the people who are actually doing the work or maybe some of the money should go back to the citizens of Harlem or Grovetown to relieve them from some of their tax burdens,” Johnson said. “As you well know, with the economy the past few years, we have seen hundreds of foreclosures. People just abandoning their homes because they have no money and they have no hope. And I have been able to help some of those and some of those I haven’t been able to help just by virtue of it was too late sometimes. So, the people need some relief.”
If Johnson is elected to become the county’s next tax commissioner, he would like to implement some changes to the office that he believes will provide better service to the citizens.
“I don’t want to be negative about this, but I want to reestablish a good relationship with the tax assessor’s office,” Johnson said. “A lot of people think tax commissioner and tax assessor are the same thing and they are not. Unfortunately, we have not had the best relationship with the tax assessor’s office over the years.
“I want that relationship to be reestablished because we have to work together for the common good to get those people the correct assessments.”
Unfortunately, the relationship between the offices of the tax commissioner and the tax assessor was not a good one under Kay Allen’s leadership, Johnson said.
“If elected, I want to work on making sure that we are collecting on the correct amounts of assessments or appraisals on properties and just reestablish that connection with the assessor’s office because we work hand in hand,” he said. “And the folks in the tax assessor’s office do a very good job at what they do. Our relationship has just not been where I would like it to be.”
He would also like to see the employees in the tax commissioner’s office properly compensated, Johnson said.
“A few years ago, I implemented a ‘level program’ for our entry level folks,” Johnson said, explaining it was necessary because the tax commissioner’s office was competing against salaries offered at Circle K and McDonald’s. “We were competing with people who were just making change and collecting money for a candy bar or a hamburger and I’ve got people that need to make judgment calls on titles and homestead exemptions.”
Clearly, he wanted employees with a “certain set of skills” that could appropriately handle the public’s questions, Johnson said.
“So, I instituted levels and, with each level, I developed a training program,” Johnson said. “Each training program would consist of four levels, and when the employee met each of those levels, we would give them a pay increase as long as they successfully completed all of the tests.”
It was a rewards system that helped the employees gain confidence and understand that they were valued employees, Johnson said.
“It was important because those on the frontline have the hardest work for the least amount of pay,” he said, adding that he believes the salaries are now competitive in the marketplace because of his training program. “And the truth is, the frontline people are the most important people. They are the first person our taxpayers and citizens see when they come in the office and they are the last person they see when they leave.”
So I feel over the past few years we have become very competitive.”
As a long-time resident of Columbia County who has lived on Belair Road practically his entire life, Johnson believes there is no other community he would want to serve.
“I have had two job offers out of the county that are farther than a commute and I have no desire to leave this county. Ever,” Johnson said. “I feel like I have Columbia County running through my veins. I’m from this community and these people are my friends and family. And the people here just want to be treated fairly with some dignity and respect. That’s what I would like to give back to the community.”
Over the past few months since the scandal broke regarding Kay Allen, Johnson said he has been approached by hundreds of people telling him he should run for tax commissioner.
Johnson admits that becoming Columbia County’s next tax commissioner has been a dream of his for many years, but he never thought he would get the opportunity to run as a result of Kay Allen resigning from office.
“The events that happened leading me up to running for office leave me speechless,” Johnson said. “I really don’t know what to say about it, other than, I never dreamed that this was going to be the avenue that I would take to get to the goal of becoming this county’s next tax commissioner. But I would be honored to serve in that role if given the opportunity.”