Cooperation, Communication Pay Off
By Julie Anderson
For more than 10 years, Laura Prado has supervised the collection of court costs, fines, and attorney’s fee for criminal charges within Potter County including five district courts, three county courts at law, and four justice of the peace courts.
Having previously assisted in developing the collections program for the city of Amarillo’s municipal court, Prado is well familiar with the keys to a successful collections program including communication with defendants and cooperation with county partners.
When it comes to maximizing collections, “keeping in contact with defendants is crucial,” Prado shared. “We send a lot of correspondence and make a lot of phone calls.”
Prado’s department also fosters effective working relationships with probation and parole officers, “who are great in reminding their clients about their obligation to the court.”
“We are enforcing a court order,” Prado emphasized, “so it is important to have the judges on board. After all, we are collecting for their courts.”
Another key to a well-oiled collections program is “effective, efficient software,” Prado offered. “This is a must, so do your homework in this regard.”
For counties looking to revamp or strengthen their program, Prado suggested observing other programs and procedures.
“Every collections department runs their office just a little different,” she noted, “so contacting other departments can be beneficial.”
Prado is no stranger to revamping a program. In fact, during the last several years, Prado’s bold move to restructure her personnel flow and the challenges that come with employee turnover resulted in her nomination for a special honor.
Every year, the Governmental Collectors Association of Texas bestows the Becky Sirmans Award “to the individuals or programs selected for finding a way to succeed in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and challenges embodying the spirit to never give up.”
“Last year I felt that some restructuring needed to be done in regards to personnel,” Prado explained. With this came a period of rebuilding where Prado worked diligently to train and retrain staff members to ensure the highest level of performance within her department.
“This job isn’t an easy one,” Prado noted. “Some of those who were trained could not handle the job, and some just did not like the dynamics of it.”
Prado had to start over several times throughout the restructuring, all the while keeping up with the daily workload, meaning working after hours and an occasional Saturday.
Her efforts were successful, resulting in a collections program that continues to honor the court orders all the while keeping channels of communication open between the courts, the collections department, and the defendants.
Another important aspect of Prado’s 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 in criminal cases when defendants are not prepared to pay at the time of assessment and when additional time to pay is requested, explained Amanda Stites, OCA court services manager. The CIP is designed to improve the enforcement of a defendant’s compliance with the payment of costs, fees, and fines that have been ordered by a court without imposing an undue hardship on the defendant or the defendant’s dependents.
House Bill 3167, which passed during the 85th Regular Legislative Session, increased the population threshold for counties required to have a collection improvement program from 50,000 to 100,000. Effective June 1, 2017, counties and cities with a population of 100,000 or greater are required to comply with CIP requirements (Code of Criminal Procedure 103.0033).
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. Those amended rules went into effect on Jan. 1, 2017.
OCA provides training and technical assistance on the CIP to judges and collection program staff. For more information about the CIP, contact Stites at firstname.lastname@example.org or 512-463-1643. The CIP rules are available online at http://www.txcourts.gov/cip/.
When it comes to delinquent cases, the CIP rules state the following: “Each local program must have a component designed to improve collection of balances more than 60 days past due.” Some counties have met this requirement by contracting with an outside source.
Outsourcing Delinquent Collections
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.
Potter County Justice of the Peace Debbie Horn took office in May 2006, right after the decision had been made to outsource collections with Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott‚ LLP.
The law firm does all of the legwork, Horn observed, as the firm has the resources and personnel to make multiple attempts to contact the defendants to take care of their outstanding cases.
“Most of the time that means paying their fines and court costs which in turn generates revenue at no cost to the county,” Horn continued. In addition, once a year the firm participates in a warrant roundup that generates contact from defendants “which allows us to dispose of a lot more cases.”
In June 2014, Montgomery County Justice of the Peace Precinct 4 completed the installation of NET Data’s case management system, said Brian Stanley, chief of staff for Montgomery County Justice of the Peace James Metts. At the same time, the court signed on with NET Data’s affiliate, Graves Humphries Stahl, Ltd. (GHS), to pursue delinquent fines and fees.
Up until that time, a lack of resources didn’t allow the in-house collections program to continually work older cases, Stanley noted.
“Since, by statute, all fees payable to the vendor are a part of the fines and fees paid by the customer, our county has incurred no costs for these efforts, nor has to discount its portion of a fine or fee,” Stanley explained, “so our county has enjoyed additional revenues without incurring any additional liabilities.”
Harris County Justice of the Peace David Patronella, who serves Precinct 1, Place 2, said his court has been using an outside vendor since 2009.
“The impetus was that Harris County was being directed by the state to do a better job of collecting fines and costs on criminal cases,” Patronella offered. The court contracted with Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP.
“The outsourcing has allowed court personnel to concentrate on managing dockets and dealing directly with the public,” Patronella noted. The outside firm has greater resources than the county court and has performed the job with effectiveness, efficiency and professionalism.