MISSOULA — Missoula Municipal Court recommended to the Budget Committee of the Whole on Wednesday the use of a debt collection agency to collect more than $4 million owed in fines to the court.
What this could mean for Missoula is that fines originally able to be paid by community service or by credit for attending in-patient treatment will no longer be an option.
Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks described the collections plan as a “bitter pill” but something that “we need to swallow.”
“I think we just have no other means of following up and collecting on fines. I think a lot of people are very aware of that,” Jenks said.
Collections on fines for the court have decreased over the past five years. From March 1 to July 1 in 2016, around 8,309 payments were received. In 2017, it dropped to 7,590 payments and it 2018, it was down to 6,554 payments. By 2019, only 5,910 payments were received and 3,098 payments have been received this year.
While the dive in 2020 could be accounted for by the instability caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, according to Municipal Court Administrator Tina Reinicke, the trending decline amounts to other reasons.
Part of that has been the decline in citations given in general. Compared to 2016 where 19,539 noncriminal citations were given in the City of Missoula, only 13,367 citations were given in 2019.
Another reason provided by Reinicke was the “painful” process of their 2018 conversion to a web-based database hampering their ability to give invoices.
“The process is just so labor intensive that it really only allows the court to touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to people who owe fines, fees and restitutions. So, we’ve seen some loss of collections there,” she said.
While the idea of reworking their invoice system was considered, it would be an estimated $25,000 rework. For the court’s current plan, once an agency is selected, it will cost $10,800 according to the court’s Fiscal Year 2021 request.
Jenks said there is no other remedy for their issue than a collections agency. In the past, they could suspend a driver’s license for someone who owes the municipal court. According to Jenks, 90% of people who received notice would come in and make arrangements.
Jenks said that after 2018 state legislation disabled that option, that as far as enforcement goes, they don’t have any.
“We lost that ability. The only option to force fine payment — other than collections — is incarceration, and I’ve never been willing to do that,” said Jenks, who’s been a Missoula judge since 2011. “I don’t think a lot of people disagree with that anymore.”
The collection agency would force payment by negatively affecting the debt-holder’s credit score until it’s paid off. Not everything will be turned over to the collections agency.
“We don’t turn people over to collections for a speeding ticket, because it so drastically impacts their ability to purchase a home,” Reinicke said.
While glad to hear of Jenks stance on incarceration, Missoula resident Matt Larson said to the Missoula City Council he doesn’t see the need for such a collection agency currently.
“We need to reevaluate, and I think the community is telling this to you as a whole, how we police and how we address these issues,” Larson said. “Missoula likes to tout itself as progressive, open-minded, transparent and accountable, but I don’t really see where the rubber is meeting the road on this.”
Reinicke said that the community service that will be removed if the collection agency passes with the budget, can only pay off fines, not fees or restitutions. Those who are expecting restitution could benefit the most out of the collection agency.
“And those are the people I think about, and the lack of payment for the victims who have been awarded restitution, and they never see any of their money. Whether it is to get their jaw fixed or to purchase their car that was totaled,” Reinicke said. “It’s one of the reasons that we are looking at some of the options today to improve our collections.”
Also requested by the municipal court for the 2021 fiscal year was for COVID-19 safety equipment and related services, a printer for the court’s new office space at 416 Ryman St, and general baseline increases with a communication and conflict resolution activity for employees included.