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Travis County looking to collect millions in unpaid fines and fees

Monday, August 3, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

Travis County is missing out on more than $55 million thanks to outstanding fines and fees, but the Commissioners Court is working on ways to collect.

At their regular voting session on Tuesday, the commissioners gave the green light to contract modifications with two third-party firms that would expand the number of unpaid fines and fees they can collect.

County staff are also asking for additional employees to help track down a good chunk of the missing money.

“Even if we got a small percentage of it, what a wonderful way to send a message of fairness to everyone who does pay the fines and fees and help our own coffers with the money that is owed to Travis County,” said County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir.

Her office is owed $25 million from 67,000 civil, misdemeanor and probate cases, according to the Planning and Budget Office. Meanwhile, District Clerk Velma Price says she’s trying to collect $31 million from 97,000 cases of civil and criminal court costs and fines.

DeBeauvoir, Price and County Tax Assessor-Collector Bruce Elfant were on hand Tuesday to brief the commissioners.

“One of the big reasons that we’re here together is that we want to minimize the impact on people who have limited ability to pay,” Elfant explained. “That’s why we have a very robust payment program in our office. We want people to contact us and work out something that is going to work for them. And we’re going to do everything that we can to work with them before we have to make the referral (to third-party collectors).”

Commissioner Ron Davis echoed the need to protect indigent residents. He also suggested that county staff should be more proactive instead of waiting to be contacted about payment plans.

“We’re asking for the additional staff to work in-house and make the personal contacts, understand the people’s issues and then work with them,” purchasing agent Cyd Grimes told him.

Elfant and Price are asking the commissioners for five new full-time employees, while DeBeauvoir is seeking two temporary employees plus $90,000 in technological upgrades. All told, the cost to the county would be $456,585.

“So the idea about our proposal is to have a year where we can work enough of these cases and we can have a sense of what’s effectively collectible and what’s not as collectible in terms of type of case and in terms of age of case,” Elfant said. “And then after this year, we can come up with a better strategy for how to spend our limited dollars in going after this money.”

Commissioner Brigid Shea wondered whether technology could be better employed to collect from people trying to seek county services.

“Because it seems to me that that’s another piece of low-hanging fruit,” Shea told Elfant. “If someone comes in and has the money to renew their car title or license, or do some other form of transaction with the county, where they’re seeking essentially a privilege in the form of some kind of permit, do we compare it against the database to see if they owe outstanding money to the county?”

Elfant told Shea that he’s interested in implementing that idea, but the county as yet does not have the capabilities.

Noting that the county uses multiple third-party collection firms, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt asked whether it would be more efficient to simply rely on one. Grimes told her that the system automatically sends out referrals at random, and each company is obligated to accept them and attempt to collect. The county does not pay the companies, whose sole source of income is a percentage of the collections.

“I think that’s a beautiful example of structuring some competition for our contracting processes,” Eckhardt said.

At the end of the discussion, the commissioners voted unanimously to approve the contract modifications, leaving the issue of adding new staff members to be dealt with another day.

Photo by 401(k) 2012 made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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