published Friday, December 13th, 2013

Hamilton County court to crack down on debts

The Hamilton County court system can strip people's rights, throw them in jail or even sentence them to death. But historically, it's had a hard time making people pay their tabs.

People with outstanding fines or court costs go to jail, leave the state or die -- and their debts go delinquent.

The Hamilton County Commission last week voted to hire two collection agencies -- Professional Recovery Consultants and Automated Collection Service -- to start working for the county's court clerks and other agencies in hopes of recovering at least some of the tens of millions of dollars in unpaid fines and costs owed to the county.

Commissioner Joe Graham, chairman of the finance committee, said 11 companies made proposals and the two companies chosen would keep between 16 and 19.5 percent of what they collected.

Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell requested the resolution. The unpaid fee balance owed to her office has reached $50 million.

Tidwell said the delinquent funds have been tracked since she took office in 1994. Before that, she said, there was no record kept of how much the court was owed.

Most criminal defendants pay their court fees, but not all. Some flee, some go to jail -- and that's why, Tidwell said, the office has virtually no chance of collecting more than one-tenth of the $50 million tab.

The 397 prisoners in the Hamilton County Jail on Thursday owed criminal or sessions court a combined $5.4 million. And 640 defendants in custody of Corrections Corporation of America at the Silverdale Detention Facility owe the courts $8.8 million, Tidwell said.

"There's virtually no way to collect that debt. And tomorrow, every single one of those people in jail [is] going to owe $56 more," Tidwell said. "They have no way to pay it. So tomorrow, that's $58,000 more."

Tidwell's office does have a delinquent collections division, and it does pretty well, she said. The in-house division is completely self sustaining. In fiscal year 2012, the department cost $349,000 but brought in $581,000. It is the only department on Tidwell's staff that has always been in the black by year's end.

The contract collection agencies are "just another avenue" to collect old debt, she said. They will get only debts that are older than a year and have not been paid on for several months or years.

That means people who may think they've avoided the bill will be found.

"The collection agency works nationwide, and especially with us at the corner of Georgia and Alabama, they will be able to find people who may live in Georgia but owe the court money," Tidwell said.

Tidwell can't place liens or garnishee wages for people who live outside of the state. But collection agencies can.

The agencies also have better information about which debtors actually exist.

"They have a nationwide database of dead people. We have a list statewide, but we don't know if someone leaves here and dies in California. That's money that's on the books that really doesn't need to be," Tidwell said.

Other courts and county offices will be able to take advantage of the collection agencies, but there's not likely a need, Tidwell said.

In other courts, most fees are paid up front, she said.

Mayor Jim Coppinger said that -- aside from ambulance fees -- other county departments will not likely need help collecting debt.

"There's already a mechanism in place for property tax. They auction your property. And many other [county services], you have to pay to get them," Coppinger said.

The agencies also will collect delinquent ambulance fees, but information on those fees was not available Thursday.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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