Initiative, Innovation Pay Off
By Julie Anderson
When it comes to delinquent collections, Burnet County Judge James Oakley views the matter as one of respect.
“Our taxpayers are doing their fair share of contributing,” Oakley explained. “I think it’s disrespectful to the taxpayers to allow outstanding debts to go unpaid.”
When it comes to respect, the Burnet County Collections & Compliance office has certainly earned its fair share. In 2011, Stephanie McCormick, Burnet County Collections & Compliance supervisor, received the Governmental Collectors Association of Texas (GCAT) Becky Sirmans Award, which is given to an individual or county “that has found a way to succeed in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and challenges embodying the spirit to never give up.”
McCormick was nominated by another county for this award. At the time, she was a one-person department dealing with 400-plus defendants a month; working with other offices and justices of the peace to help in any way possible, such as jumping in full force to assist with warrant roundups; and helping generate new ideas to improve collections.
“I always wanted to make our department a better place with goals each year to attain and to ultimately help the county bring in the money that was owed to them,” McCormick recounted.
In 2014, the Burnet County Collections and Compliance office received another prestigious GCAT Award: Most Innovative Program.
Ten Years Earlier
Burnet County launched its collections department in 2004 and within three months had collected enough money “to not only pay for the department’s budget, but then some!” McCormick recalled.
The two-person staff takes the following approach:
- Meet with defendants on the day of court and present them with a payment plan application. The document asks for very specific information with regard to their address, phone numbers, employment, and any financial assistance they may receive, as well as what their outgoing income is and where it goes.
- Work alongside defendants to complete a financial worksheet.
“We evaluate where their money is being spent and what is a necessity and what is a luxury,” McCormick detailed. “We come up with a payment option for the defendants. We want the defendants to understand that this is not just another bill, but this is a court order from the judge.”
- Strive for a six-month payment period.
“We have found that the longer you let them have to pay the fees, the more likely you are to not get the money at all,” McCormick explained.
- Discuss failure to pay consequences. The defendants are told that failure to pay will result in an arrest warrant, a flag on their driver’s license renewal, and transfer of the account to a third-party collection agency.
“Once defendants establish a payment plan, we then keep track of the payments and the plan; if and when they fall delinquent, we send out warrant postcards, make phone calls and mail termination letters before ultimately issuing a Capias Pro Fine Warrant for arrest,” McCormick summarized.
Going the Extra Mile
In March 2012, McCormick was given the opportunity to hire a part-time employee, Michele Joy, to help collect for district court cases; up until that time, the department had focused only on county cases. Joy ran reports dating back to 1989 where there were unpaid fines and court costs due to the county.
“Once we had good numbers, she used a system to look up current addresses, and we started mailing out mass letters letting these defendants know that they still owed Burnet County money,” McCormick recounted.
“We slowly, one by one, started setting people up on payment plans and bringing in money,” she reported. If no response was received within a limited amount of time, then the driver’s license was flagged for non-renewal.
“This proved to be a great tool as we had a family member who did not want their son to go without a license and paid over $20,000 on an old case,” McCormick shared.
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.
“We put into place a system to start collecting on fees that were just sitting there with no action being taken, and we were able to get the job done efficiently and with purpose,” McCormick maintained. “We have also mentored other counties on how they can use the TDCJ Inmate Trust Program to their advantage.”
This process allows counties to collect money owed through the Inmate Trust Account (or their commissary account).
McCormick had wanted to launch this program for some time, but could not do so until Joy went full time.
“Michele started collecting on every defendant that was either still in TDCJ or would be currently going to TDCJ, and the numbers were astonishing!” McCormick reported.
In 2012, Burnet County collected just over $3,543. In 2013, that number went to $17,670.26. In 2014, the number jumped went to $20,003.03
“This not only allows the county to receive the money on a monthly basis, but it also allows the defendants to pay their dues while in TDCJ and hopefully be done by the time they get out,” McCormick declared.
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 (their commissary account) to pay for the expenses listed in the statute, as explained by the Texas Office of Court Administration (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?
Mandated Collection Programs
In 2005, the 79th Texas Legislature addressed county collections via the passage of Senate Bill 1863 requiring counties of 50,000 or more to develop and implement a program to collect court costs, fees and fines imposed in criminal cases to include district, county and justice courts, unless granted a waiver, http://www.txcourts.gov/cip/about-the-cip.aspx. The required provisions are:
- conform with a model developed by the Office of Court Administration designed to improve in-house collections through application of best practices; and
- improve collection of balances more than 60 days past due, which may be implemented by entering into a contract with a private attorney or public or private vendor. According to state law, a 30 percent fee can be assessed on a fine or fee, which is the firm’s payment for collection.
McLennan County Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace David Pareya has been serving as judge for 37 years. In fact, Pareya and his clerk developed the first software used by a collection agency to assist the McLennan County courts.
When the Texas Department of Public Safety did away with the Warrant Data Bank, this meant a statewide mechanism to executing pending warrants on citations that were overdue in court no longer existed.
“We did not have the manpower on the local level to arrest people for delinquent fines and fees,” Pareya explained.
The McLennan County Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Court contracted with Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, said McLennan County Commissioner Kelly Snell.
“We have had nothing but success with our collections,” Pareya maintained, relieving the court of adjudication time and giving the defendant the opportunity to take care of business without having to go through the arrest, tying up the police, etc.
“I would highly recommend that any official, with regard to collections of fines and fees, do some intensive research with all of the different entities that are available and see which ones fit the county’s needs,” Pareya concluded.
“One of the best business decisions I ever made was to outsource collections at no cost to the taxpayer,” claimed Freestone County Pct. 1 Justice of the Peace Theresa Farris. “With a limited budget and only one clerk, there was no way we could make the extra effort on our own to collect the enormous amount of uncollected debt from delinquent cases,” she continued, thus the decision to contract with McCreary, Veselka, Bragg & Allen, P.C.
Outsourcing delinquent collections has alleviated the department workload as the firm has taken over sending out notices of delinquency, calling debtors, setting up payment plans, collecting money, and “promptly sending a check to the county,” Farris stated. In addition, the county is regularly kept informed of progress.
Convenience and accuracy were the top two reasons San Augustine County opted to outsource its collections efforts and contract with a private vendor, said Vickie Bailey, chief clerk for the county’s justices of the peace.
“It was just our best route to take,” she said, “and we are very pleased and satisfied.”
Graves Humphries Stahl, Ltd. (GHS) processes all of the delinquent cases and OMNI and NRVC suspensions along with courtesy notices.
“Our revenue has increased tremendously through the years,” Bailey reported.
Once legislation passed to allow counties to use an outside entity, Brazoria County opted to take advantage of this resource, said Brazoria County Clerk Joyce Hudman, contracting with Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott‚ LLP.
“This gives the defendant an opportunity to pay out court costs and not sit it out in jail,” Hudman explained.
“It also helps my staff concentrate on the defendants who are not as difficult to locate and really want to work with our office to get their fees paid in full,” she continued. “The best thing Brazoria County has benefited from in the last few months is the Scofflaw. The firm we contract with just implemented this in October 2014, and we have seen great results.”
Scofflaw, or the Vehicle Registration Denial Program, is a program in which the local government and the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles enter into a contract to prevent vehicle owners with delinquent traffic violations from receiving their vehicle registration.
The key to an effective collections department is to have a great working relationship with all departments involved in the court system, McCormick offered.
“We all help each other,” she elaborated. “We have directed our dedicated employees to be firm yet understanding when dealing with the defendants, and to be consistent with regard to making the phone calls and sending out the notices when payment plans become delinquent.
“Our No. 1 goal is to make sure that the defendant is held accountable for what the judge and the court system have ordered,” she stated.
Burnet County has collected more than $1.4 million dollars from 3,345 cases in the last four years in actual money along with $70,385.50 in community service for those defendants who cannot pay their fines and court costs because of a disability, they do not work, etc., McCormick related. These figures do not include jail time served.
Counties looking to improve their collections or launch a new program should begin with a business-type plan, McCormick suggested. Develop a consistent approach, rather than a plan that changes from day to day.
Next, meet with judges, probation officers and court personnel to ensure everyone is on the same page.
“You have to have a good working relationship with your court representatives,” McCormick reiterated, “so that they will back you in your decision-making process.”
Collectors looking for a fresh start should contact other counties to learn about their programs, McCormick conveyed. In addition, involvement in the Governmental Collectors Association of Texas and attendance at the GCAT conferences provides an ideal opportunity “to network and learn all you can.”
McCormick is the current GCAT vice president, and Joy is a GCAT board member; both assist with conference agenda preparation, speaker selection and general conference management.