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Unpaid fines a priority for clerk hopefuls

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By The Staff

By DAMON LAWRENCE

dlawrence@roanecounty.com

Looking forward won’t be the only priority for Roane County’s next circuit court clerk.

The candidates have all said they plan to look back to try and collect court costs and fines that have gone unpaid.

“We’ll be going back through the records and seeing if we can collect if you can prove it’s not been paid,” Bob Alford said.

Alford, Kim Nelson and Mona Gardner Wright are vying to replace Angela Randolph as circuit clerk. Randolph is not seeking re-election.

Exactly how much is owed in unpaid fines and court costs has been a subject of debate and speculation. 

According to an e-mail sent to county budget director Alva Moore in January 2007 from Local Government Corp. — a software vendor — the amount owed was $9 million.

District Attorney General Russell Johnson used that same figure in a letter to Roane County Executive Mike Farmer in May.

Johnson’s office was considering supervising an employee paid for by the county to collect court costs and fines.

After looking into the issue, Johnson wrote that he felt it was not the right time to undertake such a proposal.

“Therefore, I suggest that you proceed with your earlier proposal to hire a collection agency to perform this service in accordance with applicable statutes,” Johnson wrote. 

The idea of hiring a collection agency has already been done. The county hired a company called Solutia, but Farmer ended up suspending the contract because, he said, “we found out they were trying to collect on tickets that had already been settled.”

If elected, Nelson said she plans to have one employee whose sole responsibility is to collect fines and court costs.  

“My idea would be to start now, from present day, and work our way back and start sorting that out,” Nelson said.

“Cleaning that up, and for those folks that generally do owe the money, to start collecting that from them and have that deputy clerk be in charge of that process,” she added.

Wright said she plans to work with Moore and the budget committee to determine a method to collect outstanding payments.

Wright also said she plans to establish an online payment system.  

“For people who have traffic fines and live out of state, they might be more inclined to pay in a timely manner if they could do it online,” she said.

Nelson said she’d also like to make it more convenient for people to pay. 

“I would like to see at some point in time, just a single collection window for that deputy clerk that I intend to designate for the collection of fines and so forth,” Nelson said. “So the people who need to pay their fines and court costs could go just to that window and deal with it there.”

Wright said things that are being done in other counties to get people to pay could work here.

“I’ve also talked to the clerk in Morgan County,” she said. “They send out a capias with a cost of the fee, plus the cost of the capias, so if you don’t pay it, you no longer get by with that.

“They’re going to come with that capias and bring you back in and your bond is the fee, plus the cost of the capias,” Wright added. “I’d like to do something like that. Make a real incentive to pay instead of letting it fall into this hole.”

In the e-mail that Local Government Corp. sent Moore, the company said there was a possible caveat to consider about the $9 million figure.

“It’s possible that a case has a double execution when in reality they only had one execution,” the e-mail said.

“If the clerk did not realize an execution already existed for a case and when they went to receipt it, they can add a new execution. If that execution is paid in full and there was already an existing execution with a balanced owed, that balance owed will still reflect on the totals.”

Because of things like that, Nelson said it’s imperative that the county make sure it’s collecting from people who actually owe money.

“I know from a few years back, I had a phone call from a guy who had been contacted by a collection agency that the county hired, and he didn’t owe it,” she said. “It hadn’t been inputted into the computer correctly.”

Election Day is Thursday.