By Marlana Ward
Since February 2017, the Circuit Court Clerk’s office has been increasing its effort in collecting fines and fees owed to the county by those who are sentenced through the local court system. The office’s renewed dedication to making sure offenders pay what is owed to the county has been streamlined this year thanks to improved software and the utilization of an outside collections agency.
At the June meeting of the Johnson County Commission, Melissa Hollaway, Johnson County Circuit Court Clerk, shared reports highlighting amounts owed to the county and monies collected by the clerk’s office this past year. According to Hollaway, the report produced showed the total owed to the county and turned over to collections from 1999 to present day. The total owed to the county in past due fines was $2,397,534.06.
Hollaway described the difficulties in obtaining the exact amount of past-due monies owed to the county, “It is very hard to get accurate numbers from past years because for one, this office did not have updated computer software capable to calculate. However, new computers are now in place and the best way to describe revenue is that it works like a bank account with revolving monies in and out. This means that for every debt paid off, dozens more take its place so the numbers fluctuate daily. Collections are about past due amounts only and does not reflect the daily, on-time payments that go to the county.”
Hollaway shared that in the past a combination of few penalties enforced and the lack of a well-defined payment plan led to the accumulated amount of charges turned over to collections this year. “There have never been collection efforts in place until now, so it has been very challenging to collect old fines and costs,” she stated. “Only within the past few years have the payment plans been introduced and utilized. Even then, people still did not want to pay. With the collection agency partnering with us it has created a sort of security blanket for people to adhere to these payment agreements.”
Since the collection agency has been utilized by the county clerk’s office, the office has seen positive steps towards the collection of past due accounts. “We have collected over $13,000 dollars in a year’s time in past due costs,” Hollaway stated. “That to me is pretty amazing considering this has never been done before.”
Hollaway explained how the Circuit Court Clerk Office is continually evolving and adapting new methods for collecting funds owed to the county. “As a team, the clerk’s offices is doing all that we can to collect these monies for the county,” she said. “I am always looking for ways to streamline and improve and as new technology advances, so does our efforts.”
She went on to explain how the clerk’s office took advantage of an opportunity given by the state of Tennessee to increase their collection efforts as well. “In 2011, a law was passed that required the clerk’s office to report any defendant that is not on a payment plan to be turned over to the department of safety for suspension of driver’s license,” she explained.
“This is something I put into full force and effect when I took office in 2014. This has been instrumental in collecting because having a driver’s license is a necessity and when an individual is notified from the department of safety their driving privileges are suspended, most times they immediately contact my office for guidance. They can then apply for a payment plan and go back before the judges.
If granted, then they can get their license reinstated per payment plan but if they miss payments, their license will be suspended again and the department of safety will only then reinstate if the case is paid in full.”
In addition to the lack of penalties and payment options, Hollaway expressed an understanding of how the court process could be intimidating for offenders and how the clerk’s office attempts to help individuals work towards paying fines on time. “We realize that collecting money is no easy task,” said Hollaway. “Given the lack of jobs here in the county, as well as our area being one of the lower income counties as Tennessee as a whole, we are striving to offer payment plans through our office and the courts that would be on a case by case basis that would allow the debtor to pay their court costs and fees based on their income that they feel
comfortable paying yet being able to maintain financial stability.”
Hollaway also explained how the judges who preside over local cases are doing their part in ensuring offenders know they have fines to be paid along with their sentences. “The debtors actually sign an agreement saying they acknowledge they have monies due to the courts and that they agree to pay that amount monthly,” she said.
Penalties for those who do not fulfill their obligations to the county are enforced as pursuant to Tennessee law. “If someone does not make a payment toward their fines and fees within a six month period, they risk being in default and being turned over to the collection agency as stated in T.C.A 40-24-105 ©,” Hollaway explained. “Additionally, if their court costs and fines are traffic related, they risk having their driver’s license suspended as allowed by T.C.A 55-50-502 (H) (I).”
The Court Clerk’s Office is available to answer any questions a citizen may have about court fees, fines, and the payment thereof. “The main thing to remember is to try to pay something every single month,” expressed Hollaway. “This will prevent being turned over to collections and getting your license suspended. I understand that having to go to court is scary and confusing. My team and I are here and glad to help you understand the process, please don’t hesitate to contact us at 423-727-9012. Methods of payment: online at www.courtfeepay.com, mail to Melissa Hollaway, Circuit Court Clerk, P.O Box 73 Mountain City, TN 37683, No personal checks, Money Orders, Cashier’s Check or may pay cash in person.