Waco Doesn’t Tolerate Delinquent Court Fines
Waco’s Tips for successful court collections
City of Waco official Suzy Seitzler has spent 28 years in municipal court administration and offers the following tips for getting the best from the Office of Court Administration Collection Improvement Program:
- Use your experience. Waco’s OCA implementation team had a combined total of more than 75 years of computer, police and court institutional knowledge.
- Buy into the program. Seitzler says the program is not easy to implement, so court staff should anticipate a significant amount of trial and error when customizing the program and protocol for their court to prevent future problems.
- Get the word out. One out of three mailed notices gets returned, so Waco has also advertised its strict policy on billboards and in radio spots on English and Spanish stations. “Word of mouth is probably the best form of communication,” she says.
- Keep collections in-house. For the first 13 months, Waco handles case collections. This has a positive economic impact on the city from the staff hired to manage the caseload. Accounts delinquent for more than 13 months are sent to a collection agency because those services have better resources for tracking people, Seitzler says.
- Win the mind game. Seitzler says it’s important to make defendants aware of the court’s expectation of payment. For example, Waco doesn’t offer payment plans, but will create them if asked. That’s done to prevent even a hint of leniency. “You don’t want defendants to think, ‘Well, nobody’s going to send me a letter, nobody’s watching the cookie jar, nobody’s going to issue a warrant.’ To me that’s not the right thing. We have to do as much as we possibly can,” she says.
- Use state programs that deny driver’s license and vehicle registration renewal to scofflaws.
- No amnesty. If defendants know they can put off paying their bill and not suffer penalties, they will. “By offering amnesty, you’re teaching them to think, ‘I’ll wait and not take care of my business and then cut a deal.’ You’re rewarding bad behavior,” she says.
Suzy Seitzler has dual roles counting pennies – she is the Waco Municipal Court’s program administrator and the daughter of a 77-year-old mother on a fixed income.
“If we’re collecting more money from fines and fees, hopefully taxes won’t go up, particularly for people with fixed incomes,” Seitzler says.
To that end, Seitzler wants to maximize Waco’s collection efforts, using the Office of Court Administrations (OCA) Collection Improvement Program, to tackle the cases of defendants who fail to pay all court costs, fees, fines, attorney fees, probation fees and/or restitution by court-ordered due dates.
Waco started using the OCA program in 2004, a year before the Texas Legislature passed SB 1863, making it mandatory. OCA estimates cities and counties experience a 91 percent increase in their collection rate after implementing the collections program.
Seitzler said the program is complex and labor-intensive to get going, but has allowed Waco to add staff and reduce the rate of delinquent cases. In the first year, Waco increased collections increased by $1,231,837 to $3,299,986 in 2004.
By enacting and diligently enforcing the program, Waco has increased its income and also burnished its reputation as being tough on scofflaws.
“When you don’t enforce (the warrants), people lose respect for the court and their perspective changes,” Seitzler says. “They don’t think you mean business. We mean business.”
Also, Waco collected $547,158 during its annual Warrant Roundup in 2003, the year before installing the program, said Barbara Olsovsky, collections administrator. Since implementing the OCA program in 2004, the warrant roundup collections have averaged $987,825.
Key elements of OCA’s program include:
- Dedicate staff primarily to collections. When collections are not at least a priority job function, timely execution of collection activities does not generally occur.
- Set expectations among defendants that all court costs, fees and fines are due at the time of sentencing or pleading. Documentation of the estimated likely fees, costs and fines should be given to the defendant before adjudication.
- Defendants unable to pay in full on the day of sentencing or pleading must complete an application for an extension.
- Application information is verified and evaluated to set up a payment plan. Minimum verification includes calling the defendant and his/her employer or source of financial support.
- Payment terms are usually strict.
- For Municipal and Justice Court cases, full payment is expected within four months of assessment.
- For County and District Court cases involving community supervision, full payment is expected two months before the expiration of community supervision.
- For County and District Court cases not involving community supervision, full payment is expected within six months.
- Alternative enforcement options are available for those who do not qualify for a payment plan. These options include community service or some limited amount of jail time.
- Defendants are closely monitored for compliance, and action is taken promptly for non-compliance.
- A county or city may contract with a private attorney or a public or private vendor to provide collection services on delinquent cases (61 or-more days), after in-house collection efforts are exhausted.
- Application of a legal collection program, such as the Department of Public Safety’s Failure to Appear program, which prohibits those with outstanding fees from renewing their driver’s license or the Texas Department of Transportation’s option to withhold vehicle registration (PDF, 157KB).
- Issue and serve warrants, as appropriate. The collection department recommends to the court those defendants that are in arrears and the court issues and serves the warrant.