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County creates post to collect fines

By Staff | Oct 1, 2008

The Emmet County Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved creating a position to collect delinquent fines, a position that would pay for itself, according to Emmet County Attorney Doug Hansen.

The county is currently owed $345,556.17 in past-due fines from the past three years.

Hansen illustrated how fines become delinquent and how, until now, it has been difficult to collect them.

In the example of an OWI case, Hansen said an individual who pleads guilty will pay nearly $2,000 in fines and court costs, and another $500 to $1,000 if the person is deemed indigent and uses a court-appointed attorney, a cost which is to be reimbursed to the state. In the event of a trial, the cost could be $5,000 or more.

“There is a lot of money that is owed to the state on these criminal charges and convictions,” Hansen said. He said over $400 million is owed to the state in past due fines, court costs and attorney fees.

Hansen said 10 years ago the state set up the Central Collections Unit which is still in operation.

Assistant County Attorney Lyssa Henderson said 40 percent of what the county attorney’s office collects goes into the county general fund. If the county attorney’s office collects more than $25,000 a year, the office will get an additional 20 percent of what is collected.

“It can be time-consuming so you need additional staff to do it,” Henderson explained. She explained that the office of Clerk of Court Cynthia Kelly is integral in helping collect fines.

Henderson said those who owe money to the court can sign a wage assignment in which their fines will be repaid. If a person leaves a job, the employer then notifies the county.

Those who have a judgment against them can follow a payment plan. If the fine is not paid in three months, the county can start collection procedures.

“This is a program that I believe would be beneficial to the county,” Henderson said. “The program more than pays for itself.” However, Henderson stressed, an additional staff person would be required.

Henderson suggested that if the county decides to start the program, the person charged with collection could start by contacting those who owe money to the court. If they do not respond, a warrant could be issued for their arrest.

Hansen explained that the purpose of the arrest warrant would be to locate people who may currently be in a different area than Emmet County.

“This program is designed to be a win-win situation for everyone,” Hansen said.

“This is similar to what they’ve been doing for child support for years,” Henderson explained.

While the supervisors approved of the program in principle, they all agreed that it needed to pay for itself.

“It has to pay its way as far as I’m concerned,” said Board Chair Alan Madden. “There’s going to be some evaluation there and it may go away.”

“It’s not a program that we can do without another person,” Henderson said, noting that the person hired could also handle other office duties. Michelle Howing is currently victims witness coordinator in addition to office manager which in itself is considered a full-time position.

“If we’re spending more money than we’re taking in we’d probably suspend it,” Hansen said.

Henderson said the county should collect a minimum of $20,000 the first year. “I honestly think it will be higher than that.”

Madden asked what Palo Alto County is currently doing on the issue.

Henderson said the Palo Alto County Board of Supervisors decided not to fund the position since it already has two and a half office persons in the county attorney’s office.

Another interesting aspect of the process of collecting fines and costs was discussed. If a county collects fines from judgments made in another county, the county collecting those fines gets 40 percent of the amount collected.

“I would rather see this than have people go to other counties and them (the other counties) have the money,” Kelly said. In the event that a private agency should collect the past-due fines, something allowable by law, it could tack on another 25 percent to the amount owed.

Henderson said the county could still collect past-due fines and court costs if someone is living in another county or even in another state that has driver’s license reciprocity with Iowa.

“I’m all for it because these people need to pay,” said supervisor Randy Beaver.

The board approved the position.

In other business, the board heard a road report from county engineer Roger Patocka who said an offer had been made and accepted for a maintenance superintendent.

Beaver also updated the board on drainage problems in the area of Servpro on Highway 4 south of Estherville.