By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
People with outstanding fines in Havre City Court may want to pay up more promptly in 2004, as the court implements new measures.
"What has happened over the years is they wait until the last minute," City Judge Joyce Perszyk said last week.
"The incentive is to get it done right away," she said.
Until now, she said, people with fines had as much as five or six months to pay the money or work it off by doing community service before the court would issue a warrant.
Under a new time-pay arrangement at the court, people who owe fines will have a maximum of three months to pay the money or do service hours to work off their fine.
If they don't pay or complete their service hours within that time, they will face having their driver's licenses suspended by the state and having their names turned over to a collection agency.
The changes could affect hundreds of people. Perszyk said the Havre Police Department gives out about 4,000 tickets a year. About a quarter of the people serve jail time, and the rest - more than half, she said - end up with fines.
At last count, in August, City Court had nearly $600,000 in delinquent fines.
Under a deal being negotiated between City Court and the Havre Credit Bureau, the credit bureau will be hired by the city to act as a collection agency to pursue people who have not paid their fines after three months.
Brent Reber, owner of the Havre Credit Bureau, said today he expects the bureau will finalize a contract with the city in the next month.
He said success rates of collection agencies nationwide range from 25 percent to 40 percent, depending on how long the original creditor waits before turning over the account to a collection agency.
After creditors turn accounts over to the bureau, Reber said, the bureau sends the parties an initial notice asking them to pay the amount, and telling them they can come to the agency if they want proof of the debt.
If people don't pay within 60 days, the account is placed in their credit files, Reber said. That may prevent them from getting credit elsewhere.
"That's a very good incentive for people to get it taken care of because once it's in their credit file, it will stay in their credit file for up to seven years," he said.
Perszyk said the court is turning to a collection agency "because of the number of tickets and the amount of work required to try to make people pay a bill," she said. The drawback, she said, is that the collection agency will get a percentage of the fees it helps the city collect.
Havre City Clerk Lowell Swenson said the city has used the Havre Credit Bureau as a collection agency for delinquent water bills for as long as he can remember. He said property owners' accounts are only rarely turned over to he bureau, and that he does not know how successful the bureau has been at collecting from those people.
Since the week after Christmas, people who appear in City Court are being given a copy of the state law, passed last year, giving the city authority to suspend the driver's licenses of people who don't comply with their sentence.
Those whose licenses are revoked will have to pay $100 to the state Department of Motor Vehicles to get another one. That has been done in the past for people who don't pay fines for traffic violations, Perszyk said. A law passed last year by the Montana Legislature means a person's license can be suspended for any misdemeanor. Violations excluded from the new rule include seat belt violations, highway speeding, and city code infractions like parking violations, she said.
Darrel Hannum, director of employment and training at the District IV Human Resources Development Council in Havre, is in charge of placing people who have been assigned community service hours by the court. People work in places like the Havre Food Bank and the Feed My Sheep Soup Kitchen, as well as shoveling sidewalks for seniors and cleaning at HRDC.
"It'll probably help us a little bit because the paperwork will go faster and we can process these a little faster," Hannum said, but he said the main benefit will be to the court.
The city's inability to collect the fines it imposes has come up in city business several times this year.
In July Perszyk asked the Havre City Council to consider hiring a full-time compliance clerk to help solve the problem, but a tight city budget meant the position was axed at the last minute.
In August, Havre City Council member Tom Farnham, who chairs the council's Finance Committee, proposed publishing the names of people with outstanding fines in the Havre Daily News in the hope that it would be an incentive for people to pay their fines.
The idea was not followed up, and the list has not been printed.
But after the Havre Police Department hired a warrant officer in December, things may start to change.
"People are going to have to pay attention," Perszyk said.