Modernizing court cost collections eyed
BERRYVILLE -- The Quorum Court discussed the multiple options the county has to address the problem of having more than $1 million dollars in uncollected legal fees from people who have been processed through the Circuit Court.
The options discussed were moving the fine collections from the the Circuit Clerk's Office to the Sheriff's Office or to a private company. Regardless of what decision is made by the Quorum Court, the process for maintaining the information of who owes what and when they owe it must be and eventually will be automated, officials agreed.
The process right now is mostly manual upkeep through ledgers and spreadsheets kept by Circuit Clerk Ramona Wilson. When a criminal defendant enters a negotiated plea, he or she agrees to pay fines, costs and fees, which is essentially a contract with the court. They can pay all at once or be set up by the judge with a time payment plan. When the defendant does not pay after a certain amount of time then they can have a warrant issued for their arrest for charges of failure to pay, failure to comply with terms of probation or whatever charge specifically refers to their situation.
The county does not have an automated program that notifies officials if someone misses a payment, nor does it have an accurate estimate of the total amount of money owed to the county for these charges.
"It may not really matter how much is owed because we could be owed $10 million, but if we are not aggressively attempting to collect the money it does not matter," said Judge Gerald Crow at the meeting. "The other thing about it is that this revenue stream is not a solution to any revenue problems that the county may have. There is going to be money that we are going to be able to collect, but that is not necessarily going to be a big problem with the county...when auditing our system we really don't have a way to accurately asses what we can collect."
Crow continued to say that there needs to be a way to keep up with the collections automatically and part of automating his office could eventually include implementing a computerized process for keeping these records. Wilson also said that she is in the process of automating multiple duties of her office, and she has not automated the collections of fines, costs and fees, but she is researching and shopping for the right software to do so.
Sheriff Bob Grudek shared research with the court saying that the process must be automated and that Boone Couny's automated system can help them collect anywhere from $700,000 to $800,000 in a year compared to Carroll County's average of $50,000. The process to automate the collections is necessary, but also the largest difficulty the county could face is getting it started. He also shared that of all the counties in the state, 48 of them did collections through the Sheriff's Office.
"If the sheriff checked with all the different counties and Boone County was the only one that was automated, than we are not in this boat alone," Wilson said in regards to moving her responsibilities to the CCSO. "I also think that working within the confines that I am subjected to the sheriff is not going to be able to go out any better than I can and grab people and make them pay because he has to have a warrant before he can do that, just like a warrant has to be issued out of my office, and we cannot issue those warrants until the judge tells us to."
Grudek also said that there are some ways the Sheriff's Office can make people pay, such as garnishing there income tax returns or suspending their driver's license. Wilson commented later that she was not sure if her office would be able to do exercise said incentives, because her office was not in law enforcement.
JPs and guests discussed this issue for nearly an hour before the ordinance that addressed it was brought up in new business. Then end result was tabling the issue until the next meeting. During the conversation, JP Ron Flake misquoted Wilson.
"Ramona has said to me that she feels bad for the people who are fined and she does not want to make them pay," Flake said.
Wilson looked confused and shook her head as Flake said the aforementioned statement and defended herself when she was given a chance.
"I am a little bit insulted. If someone has been in court and they have committed crimes then they owe that money, and I don' t think they should be patted on the head and told that they don't have to pay it. That is not how I operate at all," Wilson said. "There are hardened criminals out there, yeah. But for some of these people it is the first time they have been around and they made a mistake, but they are still a human being, and I think they need to be treated with a degree of kindness and respect."
Grudek also offered the possibility of sharing the responsibilities or providing Wilson with assistance with collections. Wilson said she was apprehensive of accepting help from the Sheriff's Office because despite Grudek's good intentions, putting more people in her office may cost her more time to train them and she would be responsible if they were to make any mistakes.
Wilson last words to the court at the meeting were she enjoys her job and enjoys that part of her job especially, and that she would like to continue doing it.
Green Forest Mayor Charles Reece was also in attendance and stated the when his city switched to an automated system for collection they went from collecting approximately $40,000 to $90,000. He then informed the court of his recent campaign to implement a tax increment finance program.
"We are trying to give businesses an incentive to relocate to Green Forest because there probably has not been a new business there for at least a decade," he said about the TIF.
Talk of the TIF started when officials from Harter House, a grocery store known for their meats, started looking to open a store in Green Forest.
"If Harter House were to come into the Tanner buildings and make improvements, and it was assessed at a higher rate, then their property taxes would go up," Reece said while explaining the TIF. "There would be a finite period of time where there will be a rebate back to Harter House for a preconceived amount."
The TIF would set up a redevelopment district that would provide the same offer to old businesses too.
"The redevelopment district would be from the Tanner Hardware building to the Exxon and includes the square and all buildings in between," Reece said. "What this means is if someone currently owns a business and wanted to remodel or upgrade and it was assessed at a higher rate then they too could upgrade with the TIF."
Reece was not seeking approval from the JPs and was informed that he did not need to have legal representation. He was required to inform them and the school board, which he has. The court is now researching whether Reece would need the court's approval for the TIF, and it will be discussed further at the next meeting.
In other business, the court also approved an ordinance to appropriate an approximate $171,000 from FEMA to Fund 2800, Road and Bridge Disasters. The JPs also approved two other ordinances for the annual budget, the first of which was described as "housework" and was necessary for cleaning up the different offices budgets, Flake said. The other ordinance addressed offices who did not have enough money in their budget.
"This is the new money, this is where after the adjustments of the last ordinance, there is still a shortfall in some part of an office's budget," Flake said. "So we have to take money out of the general fund and transfer it into that department to cover the shortfall."
Near the end of the meeting last Friday, the court approved a resolution which advised Gov. Mike Beebe, Sen. Bryan King and Sen. Michael Lamoureux of the importance of turnback funds, or funds that come from the redemption and sale of tax-delinquent properties.
The resolution stated that the Carroll County Quorum Court wanted to insure that the government takes all actions necessary and appropriate to deliver the maximum amount of turnbacks to the county. A copy of the resolution was sent to the governor and senators.