Aggressive action sought in collection of unpaid court fines

Aggressive action sought in collection of unpaid court fines
By CHRIS MENEES
Staff Reporter
Frustration over unpaid court fines is prompting the Obion County Budget Committee to seek more aggressive action for collection of those funds.
The committee continued its work on the county’s 2013-14 budget with a third budget hearing Tuesday evening at the Obion County Courthouse.
As the eight-member committee of county com-missioners considered the Drug Court funding request, discussion fo-cused on what Circuit Judge William B. Acree called an “unfortunate” situation with the alleged misappropriation of funds and subsequent dismissal of a Westate probation officer who worked part-time with Drug Court.
The incident involving former probation officer Sue Moore is currently under investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state comptroller’s office, with the findings to be presented to a grand jury.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation,” Acree told budget committee members Tuesday. “There are a lot of people angry about it. I’m angry about it. I think it’s terrible.”
Since the matter was recently discovered, some changes have already been made. In the past, defendants were allowed to pay court costs and fines when they met with their probation officer, but as of May 1, it was implemented that they pay directly at the court clerk’s office and receive a receipt to take to their probation officer — with all money collected through the clerk’s office.
County commissioner Danny Jowers said he had some records pulled and he provided budget committee members with figures regarding payment of fines in recent years. The numbers were not high and an obviously frustrated Jowers said he doesn’t understand why the county isn’t receiving more.
“Somebody has stolen us blind here,” he said, reiterating the funds generated by fines should be much higher.
Acree conceded there probably should have been better oversight and Obion County Sheriff Jerry Vastbinder assured commissioners the TBI is working diligently as it investigates the alleged misappropriation of funds.
Commissioner Donnie Braswell questioned what lesson is being taught to offenders if there are no consequences for them not paying fines. Acree said Drug Court offenders actually pay more than other offenders in fines and if they don’t pay, they go to jail.
Acree asked that the county continue to fund Drug Court and he said collection is a separate issue.
“We do the best we can, collect all we can,” the judge said, adding the Drug Court program seeks to rehabilitate drug offenders.
The 27th Judicial District’s Drug Court provides services to participants in Obion and Weakley counties and is funded by a $50,000 state grant as well as appropriations from the two counties.
The Drug Court funding request for the next fiscal year is $17,000 from the county General Fund and $18,000 from treatment reserves. This year’s request from the General Fund reflects the reduced appropriation from the past three years, according to a written funding request signed by Acree, one of three Drug Court judges.
Braswell suggested the request be put on hold in order for the committee to be provided with better numbers on fines and that Drug Court continue to operate under its existing budget like other county departments until a new budget is adopted.
Acree said there are two separate issues — Drug Court and fine collection — and he said he would be glad to meet with anyone any time to explore the possibility of increasing court costs. He was accompanied to the meeting by Obion County General Sessions Judge Jimmy Smith.
Jowers said it is the responsibility of county leaders to make sure those fines are collected and he said they will continue to diligently study the matter.
The committee approved the motion to defer action on the Drug Court funding request and for the court to operate under a continuing budget until more information is provided.
Fine collection
In a related matter, the committee approved Circuit Court Clerk Harry Johnson’s request for the addition of a collection person to the court’s staff for a trial period of one year.
The collection person would identify outstanding money in the court system and collect that money. They would go to court and obtain personal information about defendants in order to track them, as well as set a method of payment and perform other duties to aid in collection of fines.
The collection person would coordinate with probation and the private collection agency used by the court, as well as the Department of Safety on suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid fines and court costs.
The proposal was first pitched to the budget committee at its regular meeting earlier this month, when Johnson explained he would like to try out the collection person for a year to test its effectiveness. He put a $22,000 line item increase in his budget to cover the salary for the position, which would have a total salary and benefits package of just under $30,000 per year.
Jowers said he believes the collection program will work, particularly if a county-operated probation program is implemented.
The budget committee had voted at a budget hearing last month for a trio of funding options to be studied — the return of the jail litigation tax and a county-operated driving school, as well as a county-operated probation program. Both the driving school and the litigation tax reinstatement were approved Monday by the Obion County Commission.
Other action
In other action during Tuesday evening’s hour and 20-minute session, opened in prayer by county commissioner Richard Arnold, the budget committee:
• Approved the Obion County Solid Waste budget, with the stipulation that solid waste director Mike Cary can “fluctuate” the solid waste disposal fee for waste tires to bring in more revenue to justify the larger size tires being accepted.
The budget committee had deferred action on approving the solid waste budget at its May 14 budget hearing. At that time, Cary said he under-budgeted this year and needed an increase to elevate two part-time workers to full-time employees to help handle the recycle center’s significant work load.
The solid waste department has successfully utilized college students and community service workers for some labor, but there is still a shortage on labor, according to Cary, who told The Messenger he has operated a full-time department with part-time labor for the last seven years.
At the last meeting, Vastbinder had offered a possible solution to funding Cary’s need for additional labor by explaining the highway litter grant funds can go through other departments besides the sheriff’s department as long as a highway litter pickup program is maintained. He said jail inmates would continue litter pickup, but explained Cary could possibly fund a position from the moneys.
Cary was asked to re-search the possibility further and he returned Tuesday night to explain that solid waste can utilize a portion of litter grant funds for his salary, which would free up some funds for other needs, but cannot use litter grant funds for recycling center salaries.
There was some heated discussion at times as commissioners debated the solid waste budget, with Braswell questioning the increase. Cary said solid waste has a good board which works hard to be conservative and keep costs down. He said solid waste has helped the schools see a significant savings through recycling and said the county’s recycling center has “real money” coming in, not a fee, fine or tax.
Jowers said Cary has provided the avenues for funding the solid waste increases, but he again questioned why the county is “subsidizing” tires, particularly with such low fees for larger tires. He said “it doesn’t make sense” for the same charge to be levied on huge tires as on small vehicle tires, and he said solid waste is doing people, including tire dealers, a favor by taking old tires for such a small disposal fee.
There was some discussion of the tire fee increasing from its current rate of 50 cents to $1.
• Received a budget presentation from the Obion County Public Library, which is seeking a 2 percent increase this year due to several maintenance issues for the 10-year-old library building. Library director Michele Barnes explained over 11,000 people come through the library doors each month and said there is considerable “wear and tear” on the facility.
Commissioners briefly discussed the use of debt service funds since the repairs would be capital outlay projects, rather than day-to-day operations, and voted for Ms. Barnes to come back before the committee with total figures for what is needed in order for them to follow up with taking the funds from debt service for maintenance repairs.
They asked her to consider getting estimates for tile rather than carpet to replace the facility’s carpet, with Braswell indicating tile would last longer.
Ms. Barnes said the library is an asset to the county and she would like to keep it that way.
• Denied a request from the Town of Hornbeak for a one-time appropriation of $5,000 for a general aviation helipad for use by medical transport helicopters. The item had been taken under advisement after Hornbeak Mayor Dennis Dozier presented the request at the committee’s last hearing May 14.
Braswell said it would not be fair for the county to provide funding to one town and not others. He said pilots have the capability to land at football fields and other large open areas, rather than flying over houses to a landing site. Jowers explained there are already 19 pre-established landing sites across Obion County, including two in Hornbeak — one at Black Oak Elementary and one at the former school site in the center of the town.
• Approved the proposed budget for county buildings and received an update on the debt service fund. Figures will be added to a county general worksheet and brought back before the committee for approval.
It was noted the committee still lacks approving the budgets for the county school system, county clerk’s office, library and county nursing home.
• Approved an in-house budget transfer for the highway department for air conditioning unit repairs. It was requested by highway superintendent Gary Lofton.
• Learned the next regular budget committee meeting has been moved up to May 31 at 9 a.m. at the courthouse because several of those involved will be out of town June 3, when it would normally be held.
• Was informed by budget committee chairman Jerry Grady that the committee will likely convene again the second or third week of June to finalize some budget items.
As the lengthy meeting closed, Jowers explained he made a motion to explore a $5 wheel tax increase at the last budget hearing in order to start discussion and prompt further study of the matter. He had suggested the possible increase strictly to fund much-needed road repairs and he said the entire structure of the wheel tax needs to be studied.
“I made the motion to get it out there,” he said.
Published in The Messenger 5.22.13

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