By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Two months after the city signed a contract with the Havre Credit Bureau in hopes of collecting nearly $150,000 in unpaid court fines, people are beginning to respond, City Judge Joyce Perszyk said this week.
People with unpaid fines have been trickling in since late March, when the court began sending notices giving them two weeks to pay up before sending their debts to a collection agency and, in some cases, revoking their driver's licenses, Perszyk said Wednesday.
Perszyk said the initial response was slow, but is picking up now.
"I think there's still a lot of testing out there to see, you know, 'Is the court really going to do this?' Yeah, the court's going to do it," she said.
She said a better response to the most recent batch of notices suggests word got around that people who didn't pay were actually losing their driver's licenses.
"I believe it affected this next batch because people then realized that, 'Whoa, when she sends out a letter, she really means it,'" Perszyk said.
So far, notices have been sent informing 394 people of about $93,119 in delinquent court fines dating back to 2002, Perszyk said.
In response, 85 people have paid a total of $6,786 to the court, and others paid restitution and took care of other terms of their sentences, she said.
The notices were sent out in three batches. The first, sent the third week in March to 33 people owing a total of $7,322, resulted in collection of $1,355 from 13 people.
The second, sent the last week in March to 175 people owing a total of $38,981, resulted in the collection of $495 from 15 people.
The third, sent the first week in April to 186 people owing a total of about $46,816, resulted in collection of about $4,936 from 57 people.
Some factors have slowed the process down, the judge said. For instance, the credit bureau sometimes has to double-check illegible parental signatures on court documents detailing fines for juvenile offenders. The court has to sort out which people will lose their driving privileges, and has to transfer account information from the old computer system to the new one the court installed last August.
"You've got to look at each and every one. It's a time-consuming project," said Perszyk, who has been working on the files with the court clerk, Beth Rucinsky, and MaryEtta Sohm, a part-time volunteer.
"It's tough to find the free hours physically to pull these every day," she said, adding that she has begun to do them over her lunch hour.
She said the court is probably about halfway through sending notices to people whose fines date prior to January of 2004. She started with the debtors whose last names begin with A in March, and progressed alphabetically. She is on the M's now and plans to be done by the end of this month.
"Everybody that owed money had the opportunity to come in and work with the court," she said. "That's basically our last attempt at working with the court before they lose their driving privileges in some cases."
Since mid-April, at least 290 files represending about $75,134 in delinquent payments, have been sent to the credit union, Perszyk said.
About 108 driver's licenses are in the process of being suspended as well, she said.
Until last year, state law permitted the state to revoke driver's licenses of traffic offenders who didn't complete their sentences. Last year the state Legislature expanded the law to all offenders, and the Havre City Court began implementing the law after Christmas.
To get a license back, an offender must fulfill the terms of his or her sentence and pay $100 to the state.
Brent Reber, owner of the Havre Credit Bureau, said today the bureau received the first batch of files from the city on April 22, and immediately sent out notifications to those people - or at least to their last known address.
"We have got some files from the City Court and we've begun the collection process," Reber said. "Beyond that, I don't know exactly the dollar amount that we have collected for the court, but we have started and we have had some success so far."
The bureau will send a check to the city on the 20th of each month for any money collected the month before, minus the bureau's commission.