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Budget shortfall continues to spark questions of delinquent court fines

It has been more than three years since the topic of delinquent criminal court fines was first addressed by county officials. Beginning in early 2009, the budget committee, preparing for a tough fiscal year ahead, began looking at various departments for ways to save money. It was during one of those discussions that the issue first arose, beginning a long and convoluted path that has yet to see any direct action even today.
Unfortunately, with budgetary shortfalls forcing the county to make cuts and raise taxes, now more than ever the potential funding that could come from collecting even a portion of these fines might mean the difference in future decisions that could affect the whole county. Some of the delinquent fines in question go back years, and because they are criminal fines there is no specific statute of limitations. Fines can range from as simple as an unpaid speeding ticket even up to offenses as serious as a DUI.
Set down by the court and paid and collected through the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, fines that go unpaid for several months become very difficult to collect simply because of the sheer amount of daily and weekly work that goes on in the clerk’s office. Even with the possibility of monthly payment plans for offenders who simply don’t have the money at that time, the problem is wide spread enough to garner a new state law that will allow clerks across the state to begin suspending licenses for cases that are more than a year delinquent.
Even though the court clerk’s office is not directly given power to actually pursue or enforce collection, state law does provide a variety of alternative methods beyond simply setting a court date for each delinquent case. One of the most popular and widely used options is for the county to hire a private collection agency that specializes in assisting local governments. Having the ability to utilize the law to its fullest extent without limiting the day to day operations of already overtaxed county offices, many local governments have seen a high rate of success by entering an agreement with one of these companies.
When the issue was first brought up by former County Mayor Dick Grayson in the spring of 2009, hiring such an agency was exactly what county officials had in mind. Commissioner Ronnie Perkins, in particular, took upon himself the task of researching and seeking out the best possible choice among the many companies that exist in the state. Perkins was given a strong lead by Judge William Bliss Hawkins who discovered Solutia Total Account Solutions at a meeting in Nashville.
As one of the leading collection companies in the state, Solutia was already working with more than 30 of Tennessee’s 95 counties, primarily because of their high success rate and low cost to the county. In fact, unlike other companies that charge as much as 20 to 30 percent of the total amount collected, Solutia actually adds their fee onto the delinquent fine itself, eliminating any cost to the county.
Following Judge Hawkins’ lead, Perkins was soon in contact with Solutia’s Director of Business Development, Van Hudson, who provided all the information Perkins needed, including many positive referrals from other counties and cities that had and were using Solutia’s services. At the same time Circuit Court Clerk Carolyn Hawkins also began working with Perkins to help get the project going.
By the June 9th meeting of the Johnson County Budget Committee, both Hawkins and Perkins were describing the benefits that could come from an agreement with Solutia. It was also during this meeting that Mayor Grayson first brought forth an estimate of around three million dollars owed to the county, which Hawkins agreed was a fair assessment. Encouraged by the budget committee to introduce the subject to the whole commission, Perkins alongside Hawkins, addressed the issue at the July 2009 board of commissioners meeting.
By that point Perkins was attesting that the figures were actually over three million, and although the Court Clerk’s office has since stated that no official research was ever conducted, Hawkins did not deny Perkins’ claim at that time. Presenting his information to the commission, Perkins declared his desire that the county enter into an agreement with Solutia, but then ran into trouble when the question arose about whether or not the service would have to be bid out according to the county’s policy
With no positive confirmation either way Hawkins requested that the commission postpone any decision about whether or not to approve entering an agreement with Solutia until the next month. Agreeing, Commissioner John Brookshire made a motion to give approval to pursue the collection of the fines, pending the research and approval of county attorney Bill Cockett as to whether or not a bid would have to be let out. The vote passed with the unanimous support of the commission and as a result the subject came back up at the August 2009 commission meeting.
Cockett did reveal that because the county would not be directly expending funds to enter into a contract with Solutia, the issue would not have to be bid out. Further, it was also noted that the commission did not actually have to vote on the subject, as the decision to utilize a collection agency was at the sole discretion of the circuit court clerk. Regardless, the commission felt that it would be appropriate to show their support for the pursuit of the unpaid fines, and following a positive recommendation by Cockett, Commissioner Jack Proffitt made a motion to give Hawkins the commission’s blessing which passed across the board.
Having left the commission’s hands, the topic did not come up again until November, when Hawkins gave an update stating that she had spoken with Solutia, and was confident that the agreement would proceed. The issue then made one last appearance before the county commission in January, 2010 when Perkins announced that Hawkins had received a contract with Solutia that she would be sending to the county attorney to look over.
To read the entire article, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.