— By JUDY SHERIDAN
After purchasing a new car, Precinct 4 Commissioner Dusty Renfro set to work reducing the amount Parker County residents pay the county when they use credit cards for county transactions.
He first broached the subject during budget discussions, when he told the court he went back for his checkbook when an auto registration clerk told him how much extra he would pay for using plastic.
“I turned right around and went home,” he said.
Renfro picked the topic up again Tuesday, saying he had received “several complaints” from county residents. He shared a letter from one constituent.
The letter stated that the writer’s daughter, who had purchased a new vehicle, didn’t have enough cash to pay for a title transfer at the Willow Park auto registration office and was charged almost 7 percent to pay with her credit union check card.
“I am very well aware that government agencies are permitted to pass along the credit card fees to the consumer,” the unhappy constituent wrote. “I would be very surprised if the credit card fees are this high. The standard is approximately 2 percent. That would indicate that not only is Parker County passing along a credit card fee, but is making revenue on top of that.
“Or, to my conservative way of thinking, Parker County is taxing the tax.”
In his opinion, Renfro said, the county just needs to cover the costs. He said other commissioners feel the same and just need to hear the specifics before taking a vote.
Judge Mark Riley said the system “shouldn’t be that way,” and asked treasurer Jenny Barnwell to visit with tax assessor-collector Marjorie King to come up with a recommendation for commissioners at the next meeting.
County Attorney John Forrest remarked that everyone who attempts to make a credit card transaction is informed of the payment increase.
“All the departments utilize that, even at the JP level,” he said. “Whenever someone comes up, they’re informed of the rate. If that’s too high, they leave and go get cash from the bank.”
King, who said she didn’t know the topic was on the agenda, said auto registration deals with many customers who complain about the 6.85 percent — plus a quarter (25 cents) credit card use rate.
“It is excessive,” she said, “and we’re seeing a lot more people using their credit cards in this economy.”
King said 1.85 percent of the credit card fee goes to Compass Bank, per county contract, while 5 percent goes to Parker County. The extra quarter is an extra fee charged by Master Card, Discover Card and others.
Barnwell confirmed the amounts and said both a local government code and a Texas property tax code put a 5 percent limit on how much the county can charge.
King said she brought the issue to the attention of the auditor in 2010 and sent a memo to several county departments.
“But I don’t think it went to court,” she said.
Commissioners agreed to accept credit cards in 2004, she said, before she took office.
“Why did they set the rate that high?” she asked. “I don’t know.”
The court authorized 10 county offices to use credit cards, she said, adding that JP No. 1 and the tax assessor-collector’s office are the only ones still using the same credit card contract, to her knowledge.
The county has taken in increasing amounts of revenue in the last three years, King said.
“In the calendar year 2012, the credit card fees charged were $73,225, and the county kept $54,884,” she said.
“In 2011, the county paid $15,779 to Compass Bank and $40,295 to Parker County; in 2010, the county paid $12,738 to Compass Bank and $34,202 to Parker County.”
King said Barnwell will explore alternative scenarios, including the use of PIN-based key pads.
“A lot of counties use an independent credit card company instead of going through the bank like we do,” she added, referencing the results of a 2010 survey she said she sent to more than 200 counties.
“About 40 responded and were using an independent vendor,” she said.
When asked for an example illustrating the credit card charges, King chose a $20,000 vehicle purchase. She said the purchase, including sales tax, a title application and registration, would result in a $92.43 credit card fee, with $25.15 going to the bank and $67.28 going to the county.