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20110701_Breakdown_Pie-ChartUnpaid fines at JP-level runs over $44 million

EDINBURG — Still looking for new and effective ways to collect money owed to Hidalgo County, elected officials met last week to identify ways to successfully recover the over $44 million owed in outstanding fines in one department.

Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia said the county has different categories of owed money – over $70 million – but the Justices of the Peace are owed the biggest chunk of cash.

“(There’s a) fiduciary responsibility we as elected officials should have to make sure the county collect all the revenue its entitled to collect. That’s part of our job,” Garcia said. “The money is badly needed by the county. We’re about to begin our budget and we’re looking at all these cuts, and at the same time, we’ve got this revenue source.”

In the JP system, there are over 200,000 cases with unpaid balances, a study from the judge’s office shows. Of those cases, which total $44.3 million, the state is owed 40 percent; the county collects 60 percent, or $26.6 million, which is divided between road and bridge, as well as general and special purpose funds.

For months, there’s been a dispute over how to go about collecting. While some county officials have suggested re-engaging a law firm to contact and collect from delinquent payees, Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra said the county would be better off hiring more attorneys to do the job in-house. Last week, Guerra said the county’s been unable to collect on so many fines because many of those cases are from people who failed to show up to court. Guerra said coding issues have made it difficult to determine whom money is owed from or if they’ve even showed up to court. Additionally, the way the system is set up, Guerra said there’s no way to determine which cases are pending.

“You cannot get data right now that is worth a darn because you can’t rely on it,” Guerra said.

It’s unclear exactly how much of the $44 million owed to the county is from people who failed to show up to court.

To minimize the $44 million, county staff has suggested a few options, some of which have already been implemented.

20110701_County-Retained_Pie-ChartIn May, the county entered an agreement with OmniBase. In the program, a person who fails to appear for a complaint or citation or fails to pay or satisfy a judgment ordering payment under the district and county court systems will be barred from renewing their driver’s license until they settle each violation.

There’s no cost to the county for the program. When a violator pays their fines and fees to the county, they will be charged a $30 fee. Of that money, $20 will go to the Texas Department of Public Safety, $6 will go to OmniBase and the county will collect the remaining $4 to the county’s general fund. Officials said JPs could partner in the program to collect on their fees.

County officials also suggested an amnesty program or using the Scofflaw Program, which prohibits people from obtaining their motor vehicle registration if they owe fines to the county. Another alternative would use the county’s website to offer an online payment option.

But JPs at the meeting said they need more staff to help combat the problem.

Constables also said operating in normal business hours along with an inadequate database makes it tough to find and verify any delinquent payees, Precinct 3 Constable Larry Gallardo said.

“If it’s afterhours, if the individual has money to pay, we can’t accept the money because the auditor has a problem with it,” Gallardo said.

Currently, constables don’t have laptops to check for warrants, their deputies often use their personal cellphones to check on a warrant status.

“I think all our constables share the same sentiment, we’re operating years behind,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Joel Quintanilla, adding that the county should look into new, innovative systems.

The county’s technology director said a poll of all the constables’ offices needed to be completed to identify what the technology needs are and how much it would cost.

“I didn’t know you all were having these issues,” Quintanilla said. “I hate to say this, and I’m not critiquing anybody, but we’re actually operating in the Stone Age.”

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