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20110916_HidalgoCountySealEDINBURG — Hidalgo County officials said their Operation Clean Slate effort, which allowed individuals to pay overdue fines and fees online or at local justices of the peace office without a fear of being arrested, was a success and are prepared to enter the second phase while looking for ways to maintain effective collections.

Operation Clean Slate helped the county collect over $300,000 in overdue fines and fees, said Roy Salazar with the county’s budget office. This helped resolve over 1,600 cases.

The average case was for $170, Salazar said.

The success of the program was a collaborative effort, Salazar said, thanking the judge’s office, the executive, budget, information and technology, JPs and Precinct 4 offices for their help in developing the program.

JPs are owed over $45 million, administrators said when the initiative was started.

“These monies have been owed to Hidalgo County for many years, and we are pleased with the response from the community,” said Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia. “The convenience of paying online has proven to be a successful technique to allow residents to take care of their judicial obligations and pay their debt.

“This project has been a tremendous success, and we will continue with these efforts to collect on what is owed to Hidalgo County,” Garcia added.

Phase II will allow the county to employ agreements its made with the Texas Department for Public Safety for the OmniBase system, which wouldn’t allow a driver to renew their driver’s license if they owe money to a JP’s office. The phase also includes scofflaw, which also prohibits motorists from renewing their vehicle registration if they have an outstanding payment due.

Salazar said the county looked to different state and county agencies to determine new and effective ways to collect on overdue fines and fees.

The initiatives in Phase II are one of the most used tools, he said.

“These are tools other counties are using,” he explained. “(But) efforts in Phase I shows there’s so much more we can do.”

The county also approved service agreements with DPS that will allow the county to get the necessary information to “connect the dots” with delinquent payees, Salazar said.

Through this effort with Operation Clean Slate, county staff has determined that the county needs to work on developing and enhancing its collection model.

“We saw that the majority of the individuals paying online were people who got their fines fairly recently,” he said.

The county will expand its efforts for easier and effective ways for people to pay their fines and fees after researching tools and different options available.

“Once we have all the mechanisms in place the new program may replace the scofflaw and OmniBase,” Salazar said.

The final phase would incorporate the law firm the county has had a contract with for collections. The county has had a contract with Austin-based attorneys of the Ray, Wood & Bonilla firm since 2007; the contract was extended under former Judge Rene A. Ramirez.

“Clean Slate has demonstrated that the county is in an excellent position to increase its revenues through this previously-untapped funding stream,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios. “The county will continue to ramp up its efforts to ensure a strategic collection mechanism is in place for the future.”

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