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Mono courts to collect, increase fees

May 23, 2013

The push targets infractions as far back as 20 years, levies a $300 fee

A renewed and “enhanced” attempt to collect delinquent fines for court infractions could bring millions of dollars into Mono County and Superior Court coffers—and create an unexpected headache for those who didn’t pay their fees or failed to appear in court.

The new push to collect delinquent fees—as far back as the past 20 years—will likely take residents and/or visitors who at one time were fined for an infraction and did not pay, or who did not appear in court and thought the issue was far in their past, by surprise.

According to court officials, the new revenue is critical to the court’s continued functioning.

“We have never had to count pennies or dollars,” said Hector Gonzalez, Mono County Superior Court CEO. “We have always been fiscally well-managed, but in this case, that turned out to be a liability.”

Gonzalez told the Mono County Board of Supervisors that the state took the court’s reserve funds, leaving the courts with a deficit. To offset that deficit, the court has decided to increase the collection of fees associated with past infractions only—not misdemeanors or felonies—along with collecting a $300 “civil assessment” fee.

He said the court has the records to track all such infractions, but until the recent financial difficulties, collection of the fees for infractions that result in a bench warrant, such as failing to appear in court, have not been priorities for the court.

But times have changed and on Tuesday, Gonzalez asked the county supervisors to cost-share a new position that would increase staffing and allow the court to increase its collection efforts.

“The court will continue to do its in-house collections with the limited staff time we can devote to it” (if the county does not agree to this request), he said. “We will still charge the $300 civil assessment for people who fail to pay or failed to appear on their infractions. The bottom-line impact is, we will not collect as much delinquent fine and fees for infractions as we could have if we had a dedicated collections clerk position that could work on the old delinquent accounts that go back 20 years.”

Hiring a new collection fee will benefit the county as well, he said. The fees will go into a fund that is distributed to both the state and county, under a mandated process.

“That means that the state and the county will not get the additional fine and fees revenue we could have collected from these old delinquent accounts, which we estimate to be conservatively $1.4 million,” Gonzalez said.

He said the law allows courts to decide whether or not to implement a $300 fee.

“Courts decide whether they want to charge the $300 civil assessment, which is revenue that is kept by the local court,” he said. “The county is not involved with this decision. The court has already decided to do this to help cover our budget deficit and we are waiting to decide the date of implementation.”

Some county supervisors expressed concerns over those who will get slapped with the new fee and past fines.

Gonzalez informed the board that the collection efforts will only go after what he called “deadbeats”­—those who committed an infraction and made no attempt to pay their fines or appear in court.

“We work with people who cannot pay their fines immediately, for as long as it takes, using very flexible installment agreements,” Gonzalez said. “This [fee] is for those who made no attempt to communicate with us or to work with us.”

The supervisors agreed to pursue funding a new position, noting the increased revenue will help the county’s bottom line for the relatively small cost of funding an entry-level court position.

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