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20110812_OPERATION-CLEAN-SLATEEDINBURG — In the ongoing attempt to collect on fines and fees due to Hidalgo County, leaders said they were moving one step closer to finally collecting by developing a new initiative that would allow individuals to pay their overdue fees using the Internet.

On Tuesday at Hidalgo County Commissioners’ Court, officials unanimously approved the creation of “Operation Clean Slate,” a three-phase initiative that could help the county collect on millions of dollars.

“It’s an exciting time to see something moving forward,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios.

In the Justices of the Peace department, the county is owed over $40 million, administrators said this week. Previously, officials said the county is owed around $70 million in total, but the JPs offices are owed the biggest amount.

Last month, a study from the judge’s office showed the JPs had over 200,000 cases with outstanding balances. In a workshop discussion on how to collect on what the county is owed, leaders said they wanted to use the Internet to allow people to pay the county.

This week’s three-phase approach was developed by county leaders as well as a committee formed by commissioners. On Tuesday, commissioners voted only on the first phase; the two final phases will be brought back for a vote once officials address concerns as well as interlocal agreements with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The first phase includes the development of the online, searchable database that also allows any individual with an outstanding fine to pay online. The phase also incorporates a media campaign to alert people to the new option. The program will be available on Sept. 15 and last 60 days. In the meantime, officials said the technology department would be working to clean the data and clear any potential problems with the program.

Phase II would allow the county to employ agreements it’s made with DPS 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.

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; most recently, the contract was extended under former Judge Rene A. Ramirez.

It’s unclear how the last two phases will be implemented or when. County administrators said they needed to first consult with DPS on their agreement, among other issues

It’s unknown how much money the county anticipates collecting through this approach, but Budget Officer Sergio Cruz said the upcoming budget wouldn’t have an increase in revenues.

“Our goal is to have additional revenue to the county using as little money as possible,” Cruz said of the initiative.


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