When it comes to fine and fee collection, Texas counties have two key concerns, as expressed by the West Texas Association in a recently passed resolution:
1. All fines and fees collected at the county level should be retained by the county for local budget needs; and
2. Current fines and fees should be adequate to fund their original purposes.
Of course, these concerns beg one key question: Are folks actually paying?
The 79th Texas Legislature passed 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.
As of March 2008, 74 of the 78 mandated cities and counties have at least partially implemented the program, resulting in approximately $26 million in additional state revenue for the period of April 2006 through September 2007, and approximately $60 million in additional local revenue, according to the Office of Court Administration (OCA) of the Texas Judicial System.
With the implementation of the program, the percent increase in estimated uncollected court costs, fees and fines has declined from a 7.6 percent increase in state fiscal year 2005 and 9.3 percent increase in state fiscal year 2006 to a 5.7 percent increase in state fiscal year 2007, said Jim Lehman, collections program manager with the OCA.
The mandated collections programs must:
conform with a model developed by the OCA 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.
Affected counties are audited for compliance by the Office of the Comptroller, and counties that do not meet the requirements may lose a percentage of fees collected.
“If Tarrant County hadn’t complied, it would have cost the county in excess of $400,000 annually in our portion of fees,” said Tarrant County Commissioner J.D. Johnson, president of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
“In Tarrant County, a collaborative effort was initiated to achieve program goals and get buy-in from affected departments and all courts,” Johnson said. Our plan is very cost effective, using existing personnel and automated technology to collect from probationers.”
In its first year, the plan has resulted in the collection of more than $11 million for district criminal courts, county criminal courts and justice of the peace courts in Tarrant County. Both the district clerk and the county clerk collect attorneys’ fees, fines and court costs, while one justice of the peace court collects money on its own.
The OCA’s Collection Improvement Program is a set of principles and processes for managing cases when defendants are not prepared to pay all court costs, fees, and fines at the point of assessment and when time to pay is requested, Lehman said.
The ten key elements of the program are:
Staff or staff time dedicated to collection activities. This may include county or city employees or contract employees.
Expectation that all court costs, fees, and fines are generally due at the time of assessment (sentencing or judgment imposed date).
In most cases, defendants unable to pay in full on the day of assessment are required to complete an application for extension of time to pay.
Application information is verified and evaluated to establish an appropriate payment plan for the defendant.
Payment terms are usually strict (e.g., 50 percent of the total amount due must be paid within 48 hours; 80 percent within 30 days; and 100 percent within 60 days).
Alternative enforcement options (e.g., community service) are available for those who do not qualify for a payment plan.
Defendants are closely monitored for compliance, and action is taken promptly for non-compliance. Actions include telephone contact, letter notification, and possible issuance of warrant.
Development and implementation of a plan designed to collect seriously delinquent cases including contracting with a private attorney or a public or private vendor after in-house collection efforts are exhausted.
Application of statutorily permitted collection remedies, such as programs for non-renewal of driver’s license or vehicle registration.
Issue and serve warrants, as appropriate.
“OCA staff will assist cities and counties interested in developing a Collection Improvement Program on a voluntary basis as time and resources permit,” Lehman said.
Approximately five years ago the Texas Department of Public Safety did away with their warrant data bank and therefore they were not executing pending warrants on citations that were overdue in court, said Cameron County Justice of the Peace Sallie Gonzalez. After watching warrants pile up, Gonzalez and fellow Justice of the Peace David Wise approached the commissioners court about outsourcing the collection of delinquent fines and fees.
The Cameron County Commissioners Court partnered with Graves Humphries Stahl, Ltd., in August 2007, and according to Gonzalez, revenues have increased substantially.
“The use of this company alleviates some of the workload in this office,” she said.
According to state law, a 30 percent fee can be assessed on a fine or fee, which is the firm’s payment for collection.
When Coke County Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Grady Coulter took office, a stack of citations was waiting for him to tackle. Grady and his fellow judge, Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Joan Davis, each run a one-person office, and developing an in-house program simply wasn’t an option.
About two-and-a-half years ago Coke County contracted with the law firm of Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins & Mott, L.L.P., to collect delinquent fines and fees, a move Coulter said has been well worth the effort.
“We have quite a bit to do,” Coulter said, “and we just had to have some help.”
The first step in setting up a program with a law firm is to make sure a county has export software that will allow the transfer of data from the court to the law firm. Acquiring software may require some expense for the county.
Once software is in place, a law firm usually will work with court personnel to integrate court policy and law firm procedures. Most programs, similar to those in-house, involve letter writing and phone calling to reach a defendant.
Sutton County has just one justice of the peace who is spread thinly across four precincts, said County Auditor Maura Weingart.
“The volume was just so much,” she continued, especially considering the county’s location just off Interstate 10, with four full-time DPS troopers, one license and weight officer, and local sheriff’s department officers issuing citations.
Sutton County voted to outsource its collections with McCreary, Veselka, Bragg & Allen, P.C., in October 2001 and noted an immediate increase over previous years’ collections.
The justice of the peace still has only one full-time worker and one part-time employee, Weingart said, making the decision to partner with McCreary well worth it.
With an annual caseload of over 500,000 criminal cases in Harris County and courthouse annexes housing the justice courts located throughout the county, centralizing collection efforts was an expensive option for the county as well as its citizens, said Harris County Assistant Attorney Janet Marton.
“The size of Harris County, its demographics and socio-economic factors, the space limitations of its courthouse facilities, and the staffing levels of the courts made the outsourcing of collection activities a cost-effective solution,” Marton said. The county contracted with Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP, in 2003.
In 2005 the Texas Legislature recognized the importance of enforcing the collection of court-ordered payments by adding a statute that requires the 54 counties with a population of 50,000 or greater and the 24 cities with a population of 100,000 or greater to implement a court collection improvement program, Lehman said.
With counties across the state meeting this mandate and additional counties stepping up collection efforts voluntarily, more and more fines and fees are finding their way into county coffers. Now if only the state would let them stay there