‘Golden Rule’ Dictates Brazos County Approach
“We are not just government employees who don’t care. We strive to bring the compliance required by the Brazos County courts and help the defendants succeed.” Director Tanya Skinner, Brazos County Collections Department
Spend five minutes visiting with Tanya Skinner and you’ll soon learn that in Brazos County, the collections program is just as much about compliance as it is about the person needing to comply.
Skinner is no stranger to county collections, having served as director of the Brazos County Collections Department since 2005. As a past president of the Governmental Collectors Association of Texas (GCAT), she is privy to collections policies and methodologies used by her peers from across the state. Last but certainly not least, Skinner recently accepted the 2022 GCAT Collections Program of the Year Award on behalf of Brazos County, a testament to the county’s highly regarded setup.
So what is the key to growing an award-winning program, one that other counties across the state seek to emulate? According to Skinner, it’s all in the approach: “Simply stated, we try and treat people the way we want to be treated.”
The mechanics used by Skinner’s office have remained fairly constant as part of a well-oiled program: i-Plow software for payment plans and due diligence, and the county’s Odyssey software to record all payments to the defendants’ accounts. What has changed in recent years is an increased focus on communication with defendants coupled by a renewed commitment to helping them find workable solutions.
“If they are trying, we will meet them halfway,” Skinner explained. “For example, if they cannot pay their set monthly payments but are willing to pay a partial payment, we will continue to work with them, and no warrant will be issued.” This may mean a payment plan spread over a longer period, Skinner elaborated, with an appointment to revisit the arrangement at a set time down the road.
“The goal here is to help people who are struggling,” Skinner summarized. “We are not just government employees who don’t care. We strive to bring the compliance required by the Brazos County courts and help the defendants succeed.”
Each person is different, Skinner stated, “and by this I mean pay scales, household bills, childcare, medical issues, etc.”
If the case warrants it, the judge may consider community service in lieu of payment. Brazos County prefers to go this extra mile rather than issuing a capias pro fine warrant and costing the county money by having to serve the warrants and house the defendant for days, and sometimes months, Skinner stated.
“We try different options,” she added. For example, if the defendant is willing to pay $10 for three months and then go back to the payment plan, “it pays in the long run…and then he or she is more willing to stay in contact and pay on a regular basis.”
If community service is the best option, Brazos County will plug defendants into Brazos County Road and Bridge, Brazos Food Bank, Brazos Valley African American Museum, Brazos Valley Council of Governments, Good Will, Habitat for Humanity, or the Salvation Army. In some cases, the collections department will share news of job opportunities.
“Tanya does an excellent job leading Brazos County’s Collections Department,” shared Brazos County Judge Duane Peters. “She and her staff go above and beyond for Brazos County.”
For those wishing to revamp their collections program, Skinner is happy to share the steps her department takes:
- The Brazos County Collections Department communicates directly with the defendant to carefully explain options and set up a workable plan.
- Everyone receives an additional two-week grace period from the due date.
- A text message is sent 14 days past due.
- A phone call is made 30 days overdue.
- The first neon-orange postcard is mailed at 45 days past due.
- A second neon-orange postcard is mailed out at 60 days past due.
- A third and final neon-orange post card is mailed out at 90 days past due; this is not a warrant.
- Two weeks from the third past-due card, a “Last Chance Letter” is printed off, and an affidavit in support of indigency is attached.
- A hearing is set, and a judge reviews the affidavit, asks questions, etc. Some of the defendants have their fees waived. Others are not found indigent and are approved for a revised lower monthly payment plan. Some are offered community service.
“We try very hard to work with people versus issuing warrants and them being arrested and waiting it out in jail,” Skinner reiterated.
One of the most important principles that makes the Brazos County Collections Department so successful is that they go the extra mile, said GCAT President Andrea Weilacher, collections compliance manager for Denton County.
“Their success comes from taking the initiative and following up with their customers, by doing more than is required,” Weilacher continued. “That is why they were named GCAT’s Collections Program of the Year.”
Curbside Collection Lady
These latest adjustments to the Brazos County approach – a renewed focus on communication and problem-solving – were triggered by the COVID experience, Skinner recounted. This change – offering help versus just collecting money because the law was broken – has improved the collection rate “drastically,” she reported.
During COVID, Skinner continued to work at the courthouse, posting online, telephone, and drop box payments daily.
One clerk ran the postcards from home, and one ran the last chance letters, etc. Skinner went by daily to the clerks’ homes, picked up the cards and letters, and then mailed them out.
Once the courts started Zoom hearings, Skinner set up payment plans personally, walking outside with her mask and gloves on to talk with defendants through car windows and help them complete paperwork.
“I was called the Curbside Collection Lady,” Skinner joked.
Once COVID subsided, the Brazos County Collections Department decided that the “extra-mile” approach – considering individual circumstances and acknowledging effort – should continue.
“We try every way possible from justice of the peace court cases to district felony cases to work with everyone in Brazos County,” Skinner emphasized. “However, as my momma used to tell me, ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.’ ” In some cases that do not resolve, the county contracts with McCreary Veselka Bragg & Allen, P.C., in a final effort to collect.
The Texas Legislature has given counties the authority 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.
McLennan County Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace David Pareya has been serving as judge for over 40 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 years ago, 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 serve delinquent warrants on delinquent cases,” Pareya explained.
The McLennan County Pct. 3 Justice of the Peace Court contracted with Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP.
“We have had great success with the firm’s assistance in disposing of our delinquent cases,” Pareya shared, “relieving the courts and defendants of going through the in-court proceedings. 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 justice court’s needs.”
Washington County Justice of the Peace Doug Zwiener’s court partnered with
Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott‚ LLP, “to help alleviate the backlog of outstanding cases in our court.”
“The primary benefit is the collection rate,” Zwiener observed. Without this partnership, most of the outstanding cases would remain uncollected.
Zwiener described the process as “seamless” and requiring very little time from the court.
Jackson County Justice of the Peace Precinct 2 partnered with Graves Humphries Stahl, Ltd. (GHS) several years ago. The court also uses i3 NETData for management software; GHS and NETData are housed together.
“This saves my clerks time,” noted Judge Cyndi Poulton. “GHS has ready access to our data, and this system has helped greatly with the collection of funds and resolving old cases.”