Cooperation, Communication Pay Off
By Julie Anderson
As collections manager, Robert Briones practices hands-on leadership.
“I believe being involved on a daily basis with processing applications, sending out notices, and making phone calls to collect alongside the staff strengthens the office,” Briones maintained. “I have the full support of the staff because they see me as a leader.”
Briones is Cameron County’s criminal collections manager for the county clerk; county courts at law 1, 2 and 3; justice of the peace precincts 1, 2-1, 2-2, 2-3, 3-1, 3-2, 4, 5-2 and 5-3; and magistrate court. He was named 2016 Collector of the Year by the Governmental Collectors Association of Texas (GCAT), a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of collection administration in county, city and state government, http://govcat.net/. Briones was nominated for the Collector of the Year Award by Cameron County Clerk Sylvia Garza-Perez.
“The collections department requires that the individuals heading the program have tenacity and good customer service skills, as well as the ability to pick up the phone and call other team members to assist whether it be the court administrator, judges, their staff, justices of the peace or our team members,” declared Garza-Perez. “It’s going that extra mile to get the job done; Robert has demonstrated that he can do this, and he has provided the same skill set and support to his team.”
Collectors need to have “open and strong relationships” with all parties involved including the judges, tax office and probation department, Briones emphasized.
“If you can build a bridge where all of these players can cross paths, then you are on the path to success,” he continued.
When it comes to specific projects, Briones initiated the exportation of failure to appear and failure to pay (delinquent payment plans) cases over to Omnibase and the denial of driver’s license renewal.
Collections is a difficult job to perform, Garza-Perez noted, one that requires a “cool and collected” mindset.
“When you listen, provide assistance, and offer solutions and suggestions to the individual on the other end of the phone, that individual will eventually agree to work with you,” she observed. “That is all we want to do for the customers, help them get out of their bind, pay off what they owe and clear their name.”
Cameron County recently implemented maintaining emails from customers so that every attempt is made to reach them and help them stay on track with their payments, Garza-Perez stated, as “continued efforts to offer solutions make it a win-win situation for everyone.”
Briones said another important aspect of his job as collections manager is staying apprised of the latest rules established by the Office of Court Administration (OCA).
Mandated Collection Programs
The OCA’s Collection Improvement Program (CIP) uses a set of principles and processes designed to assist cities and counties with collecting court costs, fees and fines assessed against persons convicted of (or placed on deferred adjudication or deferred disposition for) misdemeanor or felony charges when they are not prepared to pay all court costs, fees and fines at the time of assessment and when time to pay is requested, explained Amanda Stites, OCA court services manager. Pursuant to Code of Criminal Procedure Article 103.0033, counties with a population of 50,000 or greater and cities with a population of 100,000 or greater are required to comply with CIP requirements.
On Aug. 19, 2016, the Texas Judicial Council approved amendments to the rules that govern the implementation and operation of programs operated by counties and municipalities to improve the collection of court costs, fees and fines (Title 1, Chapter 175, Texas Administrative Code), Stites stated. The changes to the rules were designed to ensure that local programs engage the judiciary in situations in which a defendant may not have the ability to pay the assessed court costs, fees and fines without undue hardship.
“The rules were amended to help ensure that the procedures used to manage cases, from the imposition of legal financial obligations, to notice practices, through ultimate disposition are consistent among local programs and that local program practices do not inadvertently result in the removal of the court’s role in the determination of a defendant’s ability to pay,” Stites continued.
The amended rules went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017. For more information about the amended rules, contact Stites at email@example.com or 512-463-1643. The rules are available for viewing at http://www.txcourts.gov/cip/.
In May 2014, Burnet County was recognized by GCAT with the Most Innovative Program Award for taking the initiative to implement the TDCJ Inmate Trust Program.
In 1995, section 501.014(e) of the Texas Government Code was enacted to provide a simplified way to withdraw funds from an offender’s Inmate Account (commissary account) to pay for the expenses listed in the statute, as explained by the OCA. These expenses include child support, health care costs, court costs, fees fines and restitution. Walker and Kerr counties pioneered the use of “Orders to Withdraw Funds from Inmates’ Accounts” to pay court costs, fees and fines. Since then, the practice of collecting from Inmate Accounts has been widely adopted.
During 2006-2007, litigation ensued over the process used to withdraw funds for the payment of criminal court costs, fees fines and restitution. During that time period, the use of Orders to Withdraw Funds was stopped by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) due to the litigation. The matter was finally resolved when the Court of Criminal Appeals determined in Johnson v. The Tenth Court of Appeals at Waco, 280 S.W.3d 866 (Tex. Crim. App. 2008), that the withdrawal of funds was a civil matter. The Supreme Court in Harrell v. State, 286 SW3d 315 (Tex. 2009) issued an opinion affirming the process of withdrawal by direct court order under section 501.014 of the Texas Government Code, without the necessity of a hearing prior to the withdrawal.
Detailed instructions regarding the implementation of the Inmate Trust Fund Collection Program and contact information are available on the Texas Judicial Branch website at http://www.txcourts.gov/cip-tech-support/program-management/withdrawing-funds-from-inmate-accounts.aspx.
In brief, the stages include:
- Step One: Establish Contact with TDCJ
- Step Two: Notify the Offender
- Step Three: Send Order to Withdraw Funds and Judgment to TDCJ
- Step Four: Confirm the Transaction
In addition, the following important questions are answered in detail on the website:
- How much will be withdrawn from an offender’s Inmate Account?
- If an offender is convicted in multiple cases and there are, as a result, separate judgments, is a separate withdrawal order required for each case?
- Where does TDCJ send the checks?
- Does the clerk need to send a copy of the original judgment with a new Order to Withdraw Funds when an offender is sent back to prison after his/her parole has been revoked?
- Why did I receive one more payment when I sent an email to stop withdrawals?
- Why did I receive a withdrawal from an offender for less than $1.00?
- Can this process be used to withdraw funds from an offender’s local jail account?
Another tool made available by the Texas Legislature is the authority of counties to assess a 30 percent fee on a delinquent fine or fee when contracting with a private attorney or public vendor to improve collection of balances more than 60 days past due.
“Every business will have a collection issue at some point,” noted Medina County Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace Phil L. Montgomery. “The primary benefit of having a collection agency is that county employees can concentrate on the court and clients needing immediate assistance with either walk-in or by phone.”
Medina County contracted with McCreary, Veselka, Bragg & Allen, P.C., in 2006 to pursue delinquent fines and fees.
“Past due accounts can be time consuming and very hard to collect,” Montgomery observed. “Collection agencies not only have the technology, but the training skills and experience to follow up. One of the principal benefits of outside collections is doing the job properly and efficiently. This saves the county time by having them process delinquent accounts.”
Navarro County contracted with Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, in 1999.
“As statutory changes are made each legislative session, the collections firms are much better equipped to mass enter the changes to the outstanding cases,” explained Navarro County Justice of the Peace Connie Hickman. “The primary benefit to the county is the mass collection of fines and fees with no cost to the county. We see a much faster result from collections than we do from the OMNI system, capias pro-fine warrants or alias warrants.”
The county would need additional resources and additional personnel to run a successful collections office, Hickman summarized, and the collection firm meets these needs.
The Jeff Davis County Commissioners Court approved outsourcing collections because so many defendants were delinquent for a number of years, said Jeff Davis County Justice of the Peace Mary Ann Luedecke. The county contracted with Graves, Humphries, Stahl, Ltd., in 2009.
The primary benefits are twofold, Luedecke noted.
“Of course, gathering any funds past due is on the top of the list,” she stated. “As to time savings, it is huge since this is a one-JP county, and I truly do not have the time available to dedicate solely to delinquent collections.”
Brazoria County began outsourcing collections in 2000, contracting with Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins and Mott, LLP.
These are tougher accounts to collect, reported Brazoria County Judge Matt Sebesta. Outsourcing collections allows Brazoria County to keep the employee head count and costs down while allowing the professionals – the collection firms – to “do the work that they are skilled at doing.”