Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Outsourcing the Collection of Municipal Court Fines: A No-Brainer

For the past two months, my colleagues on the Plainfield City Council have failed to grant the 4-vote majority needed to approve the outsourcing of municipal court fines owed to the city by individuals who have been found guilty of violating the law. 

As of the writing of this blog post, those overdue fines total over $784,000, or roughly 6 tax points. A tax point is the value of a penny, which means that for every penny collected per $100 of assessed valuation, the city collects over $125,000. In these very lean economic times, with the severe financial hardship facing many a property owner as a result of the burden of ever rising property taxes, the city of Plainfield owes it to every tax payer to maximize every possible source of revenue. By so doing, the weight of an unbearable tax burden is reduced for everyone.

In business, smart planning aimed at collecting what is owed increases cash flow and reduces the need to borrow or to liquidate assets to fund day-to-day operations. Similarly, in municipal government, the more revenue that is generated, the lesser the need to raise property taxes. Hence, the refusal on the part of the city council to grant the 4 votes needed to outsource the collection of municipal court fines is very puzzling.

A few years ago, the New Jersey state legislature created the legislation that empowers municipalities to enter into third party collector agreements. Third parties are allowed, as an incentive, to collect up to 22% over and above the fines that are outstanding and must turn over to the municipality 100% of the original fine levied against individuals who have been found guilty of a violation, thus leaving the municipality whole.

You might ask why I am so supportive of the idea of outsourcing this function. The answer is simple: 1) Every dollar in fines that is not collected is an extra dollar that has to be paid by property owners; 2) Exhaustive efforts are made by the court system to collect the fines owed, in many cases without success; 3) A fine is a debt that is owed to society and it must be paid; it is not a burden to be placed on the shoulders of the innocent.

Judge Joan Robinson Gross, who heads up the Plainfield Municipal Court, is the consummate professional; she is known to be impartial, apolitical, thorough, and fully dedicated to the effectiveness and efficiency of our local municipal court. She always tries to provide information upon which informed decisions can be based. Given much of the commentary generated in the wake of the council’s failure to act on the proposed outsourcing legislation, the following information was recently provided by Judge Gross to a member of the administration: 

“Upon my return from vacation on this date, Court Administrator Susan Sanchez and I had a "briefing meeting" meant to update me on various issues that arose during that time. I understand from her that the City Council is reluctant to approve collection of fines by an outside agency. While I offer no opinion as to the ultimate decision of the Council respecting the Council's independent review of matters effecting the City, I want to make sure that all factors were presented for consideration. They follow:
1.     The Court has followed all procedures in house towards the collection of fines that were allowed time payments. In fact, no debt may be turned over for collection unless the court has made all possible efforts first. If a defendant has not honored the contract of partial payments, notices are sent. It is only after a defendant has failed to respond to the Court's "collection" notice or notices either by bringing the contract current or arranging an extension that a bench warrant for their arrest is issued.
2.     Bench warrants for failure to pay fines essentially means that a person is arrested and required to post bail, money which often would have been better used by paying the fine. If a third party has posted the bail, the court cannot use that bail money to satisfy the fine unless the third party, the surety, has signed a bail waiver turning the money over to pay the fine. Too often, once bail has been posted, the defendant is released and still doesn't pay the fine.
3.     A fine and any accompanying financial penalties flow only from a guilty plea or conviction for an offense whether criminal, traffic or city ordinance charges. Unlike another debt that may require collection efforts, a fine is a sentence and until that fine is paid, the defendant has not "suffered" the sentence. After all, if a defendant was sentenced to a jail term, the sentence would be served. Those who do not pay the financial sentence, unless modified by the court, have not paid their debt to society in every sense of the word.
4.     Modifications of the original financial sentence are allowed. If the Judge makes a finding that the defendant's failure to pay is more refusal to pay than inability to pay, the defendant may be ordered to jail and pay the fine in jail time worth about $50.00 per day. Community service may be served in lieu of payment of the fine. In extraordinary matters (related more to documented serious health problems), the entire amount owed may be suspended. In these scenarios, neither the City, the County or the State benefit from fines and penalties originally imposed.
Of course, if you are in need of any other information, feel free to contact Susan or myself.”

Each member of the governing body has a fiduciary responsibility to safeguard the public purse, and collectively we must always choose the greater good over the perceived discomfort of the guilty few. If, as has been quoted, “service is the rent we must pay for this room on earth,” then fines are a mere debt to society that guilty parties must pay. I urge all of my colleagues to read what the judge had to say and use it to come to the right decision for the people of Plainfield. Let us all be advocates for the tax payers and not be the voices for those who have been found guilty of breaking the law. I submit to you that the outsourcing of the collection of municipal court fines is a no-brainer.



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If this does not pass, then take all fines off the books. At least we will not be looked at as a laughing stock. If this does not pass, we have said to Plainfield and the surrounding towns, "it doesn't matter what you do in Plainfield - you can spit on our streets, spit in our faces as a matter of fact, speed through our streets, throw trash wherever you like, break into our homes, because there is no reprisal. You may be fined - so what - you don't have to pay. You may have a warrent issued to you by the courts - don't worry about it. You don't have to pay.

The two council members, Greaves and Reid who are against this, have wonderful hearts. They have no clue about their fiduciary responsibility to their constituents. THEY do not want this, but they have not weighed in with the people who they represent.

Hopefully they have now, and understand that three quarters of a million dollars can go a long way in relieving some of the tax burden we have in Plainfield.