Today is Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Neal says $59 million in uncollected fees is wrong

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Neal printed out a report for the judicial committee that showed the uncollected costs at $59 million. Monday morning, Neal said she and her staff discovered the computer program’s inability to separate line items caused it to compile every court cost from 2000 to 2010.

She explained that this error produced a number that was not accurate, and at the time, surprised her just as much as it did the judicial committee.

The total of uncollected fees included county fees, state taxes, agency fees, judgments, restitutions and more. Neal said even though all of those costs have to go into her system to satisfy state requirements, the county does not collect all of that money.

After discovering the error, she spoke with a computer programming specialist to fix the program, allowing it to separate line items and let Neal choose what figures are totaled.

“That is going to drop it down significantly when you don’t have the millions worth of judgments in there,” Neal said.

She explained that judgments occur most often in civil cases dealing with personal injury, property damage or bad accounts. A judge may rule that a plaintiff is awarded an amount of money, which is the responsibility of the defendant to pay.

“That amount is in our system, but we don’t collect that money,” Neal said, adding the state requires that money to be in their system for record-keeping purposes.

When she compiled the report for the judicial committee, Neal said she informed them the report was preliminary and they had not reviewed it and would do so in the coming days and weeks.

During that time she said the Nashville media made it appear as if she wasn’t doing her job, using the $59 million total that she said is incorrect. After discovering the computer limitation and having it fixed, she is fairly confident it will put everyone’s minds at ease.

“I think the members of the judicial committee and the people of Wilson County are going to be pleased,” Neal said.

Neal indicated she does not know what the figure will be after the program is changed and can total the uncollected fees that are due to Wilson County alone. She did say the number would be nowhere near the $59 million figure.

In collecting court costs, Neal said she and her employees do all that is required and work every day to find those that owe court costs to the county. Problems do arise, however, when trying to find people and get them to pay the costs they owe.

“In civil cases, we have no identifying information to collect that money,” Neal said of the amount of information given to her office.

She said the lack of information that is given to them makes it extremely difficult to track down the people that owe the county money in court costs.

Also, when dealing with criminals and repeat offenders, Neal said many of them are just unable to pay because of various reasons, or are impossible to find if they flee the county.

“If they fail to pay or violate their probation, some of those people leave town or the state and may never be found,” Neal said.

Neal was proud of the county’s collection rate for court costs, despite the obstacles in the way. She pointed out that county has a 50-percent collection rate, which she said is very good compared to others.

As far as she knows, Neal said no one has ever been tasked with collecting court costs full time. Neal said when the judicial committee meets again she plans to discuss with them the possibilities of hiring another employee.

“I don’t have anybody to do that full time,” Neal said. “I’m not a collection agency.”Keith indicated he was upset that Neal had never informed them of the uncollected court costs and was confident the committee would allow her to hire another employee to help with that.

“What bothers me is she has no one tasked to collect this money,” Keith said. “Had she (asked for another employee), I’m sure we would have taken care of it.”

Neal said it is very difficult to explain the difference between the various fees involved in court costs to people who don’t work in the judicial system.

However, once the computer error is repaired, she plans to compile a new report of money that the county is owed and present it to the judicial committee. Once that is done, she thinks it will clear up a big misunderstanding.

Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at phall@wilsonpost.com.

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