Tardy Targets

Published 7:35 pm Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In a 5-0 ruling, this court finds it wants its money.

Lincoln County supervisors on Monday approved contracting with acollections agency that will attempt to track down more than $4.2million owed to the Lincoln County Justice Court, an accumulationof unpaid traffic tickets, fines and judgments that haveaccumulated over 30 years. The previous agency didn’t work out, sothe county is trying again with Florida-based SC Services andAssociates, Inc., giving the company a trial period until Christmasto see how much of the more than $4 million it can run down.

“Let’s turn it over to someone who has the skill to go out andfind these people and start collecting these debts,” Lincoln CountyAdministrator David Fields told his bosses. “If we knew where theyall were, we could hand it a constable and say, ‘Go serve it.’ Thekey is finding them.”

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Justice court clerk Sharon Lofton, who provided supervisors withthe numbers Monday, said the unpaid fines date from before 1988 tolast Friday.

Much of the fines accumulated from a time when the county didn’thave probation officers to monitor those found guilty and make surethey paid up every month, she said. Additionally, many of the finespredate the computer age, when records were kept by hand and muchharder to organize and keep track of.

Throw in such confusion with simple human forgetfulness and youget $4 million.

“A lot of people really and truly have just forgotten,” shesaid. “They’ll pay it once they get the notice. That one littleletter sometimes generates a lot. I just mailed out 456 notices topeople who get tickets and were supposed to pay them by May30.”

Lofton said those who don’t pay their fines on time could bearrested, and the justice court can even lay claim to the estate ofdeceased defendant who didn’t settle the score before death.

“We’ve never done that,” she said. “We just consider thatuncollectible.”

Most of the $4 million owed to the justice court will ultimatelybe declared uncollectible, Fields said. County leaders do notexpect SC Services to gather up $4 million – not even a quarter ofit.

“We don’t collect a half-million dollars,” Fields said. “We’vedone this before. You’ll get an extra $10 or $12 (thousand) a monthmaybe early, and it may be bigger sometimes, but you’re still goingto have some out there that’s bad debt. It’s a moving target.”

Depending on how the collection agency fairs the rest of theyear, supervisors may extend their contract to go after more greatsums of money owed to different county departments, Field said.

More than twice the amount owed to justice court is owed to theLincoln County Circuit Court.

Circuit Clerk Terry Lynn Watkins said approximately $10.9million was owed to the circuit court as of last September. Andwhile the circuit court’s total may be much larger than that ofjustice court, the amount likely collectable is about the same -$4,876,800.

Circuit court’s inflated debt total is partly due to the finesleveled by former Judge Mike Smith, who routinely addedmillion-dollar fines onto life sentences for major crimes.

“One guy who got a life sentence – he’s never going to get out -his fine alone was more than $3 million,” Watkins said.

Watkins said more of the big fines for those serving lifesentences include $500,000, $250,000 and $73,000.

“The DA’s office has issued contempt warrants numerous times,but what are you gonna do?” she said. “A lot of these people are inprison, and when they get out, it’s kind of hard for them to find ajob. We have people who pay as little as $5 per month.”

More money is owed to Lincoln County outside the courts.Approximately $500,000 is owed to the county in garbage bills, andanother sum is owed to the tax office for delinquent personalproperty.