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Fine collections still stymie officers

HUDSON -- St. Croix County officials met Monday for an update and to map plans to collect some of the $2.4 million owed by people who haven't paid fines and other court assessments.

"This bothers me. It bothers a lot of people," said Chuck Mehls, a County Board member who serves on the Public Protection Committee.

Mehls, who has been on a years-long crusade to collect delinquent fines, said some of these people live, work and own property in the county.

"There must be a way," said Mehls, telling of driving past the home of a man who owes fines but still has a boat, ATV and pickup truck.

Her office does mail out notices, in criminal cases warrants are issued and the county gets judgments and uses state resources to collect delinquent fines, said Clerk of Court Lori Meyer.

In the last three years, the clerk's office has turned over $1.6 million of the debts to the state's income tax refund intercept program, and so far the county has gotten $98,651 of that money, said Meyer.

As for Mehls' suggestion for making follow-up telephone calls, Meyer said her clerks usually don't have phone numbers of the offenders. She said garnishing wages is very labor intensive and she hasn't the staff to do that.

Using local newspapers to post names of those who owe fines is a possibility, but that also would take a lot of work and she's not sure how well it would work, said Meyer.

"The people who don't pay their citations don't care what the consequences are," she said.

Sheriff Dennis Hillstead said his department has 2,500 warrants out on people who haven't paid fines, but catching them is a matter of chance.

When his deputies have down time, they pull warrant sheets and go looking for the offenders, but they don't have time to do much of that, said Hillstead.

He said patrol officers have the equipment and encourage people stopped for traffic violations to pay their fines by credit card.

"But," he said, "most of them simply aren't using credit cards."

Also, said the sheriff, enforcing warrants isn't always practical.

For example, he said, if a person is picked up in southern Wisconsin on a traffic warrant, it could cost the county more than the value of the fine to retrieve him.

By law the county must give people time to pay their fines and the majority of those who get traffic citations never come to court, said Meyer.

She said those who get tickets usually fall into two categories: "We either just mail our check or ignore (the citation)."

Some counties have collections officers who work with offenders to determine income and assets and work out payment plans, said Meyer.

She said a suggestion to use a private collections company didn't work because the firm wanted to take the tax intercept cases, which the county can handle on its own, and couldn't work with cases in which there are outstanding warrants.

Over $1 million of the $2.4 million in delinquent fines is over five years old, and the county may as well write off that money, said County Board member Daryl Standafer, North Hudson.

He also pointed out that $1.3 million of the total is money the county won't keep because it is collecting it for the state.

Standafer said the county should focus on collecting current fines rather than spending too much time and resources on debts it can't reasonably collect.

"With the tools we have now, it gets better all the time," said Meyer. She said it takes time for tax refund intercept money to filter back to the county, but some of it has already come. Also, she said, a federal intercept program, if implemented, will help.

Standafer asked Meyer and Hillstead to find out what other counties are doing "and plagiarize their systems."

"Find out who's doing a wonderful job and find out what they're doing," he suggested.

County Board Chairman Buck Malick urged the two as they prepare their 2007 budgets to investigate proposals that might generate greater collections.