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Child Support experts called in to collect fines

Child Support Department workers skilled in collections will work part time in the St. Croix County Clerk of Courts office for six months to help collect delinquent fines.

The intent of this pilot project is to determine if the amount collected can justify hiring a new collection clerk, said Clerk of Court Lori Meyer. Two Child Support employees will spend a total of 10 hours a week for six months on fine collections.

Child Support Administrator Katy Kapaun said she recently hired a collections specialist with 10 years' experience, and her office is now getting more work done. But, she said, Child Support won't receive federal reimbursement for the time its workers spend collecting court fines.

Finance Committee members agreed to transfer $7,800 between the departments to cover the lost income for the Child Support Department.

"It seems like a low-risk model," said Supervisor John Borup of the trial project.

The county is owed about $2.4 million in unpaid fines and court assessments. In the last three years the clerk of courts office has turned over $1.6 million of the debts to the state's income tax refund intercept program and collected about $100,000 of that. Notices, warrants and judgments have also been used.

During 2007 budget work, Meyer asked for a limited-term collections worker, but supervisors were skeptical about the economics of adding that job.

The Child Support workers will track down Social Security numbers, issue wage assignments and follow up with employers, track payments and maintain a master list of active cases.

After other efforts have failed, the county will turn debts over to a private collections agency. That agency will pursue cases that don't have Social Security numbers, out-of-state cases, cases that are more than six months delinquent and cases in which county employees can't identify an employer or implement a wage assignment.

Eau Claire attempts

Last week county committees also heard a report from Eau Claire County Administrator Tom McCarty on how his county handles outstanding debts.

"We don't have any magic answers," said McCarty. He said the county has about $4.5 million in outstanding debt -- about $3.4 million owed to the clerk of court and about $800,000 owed to the Human Services Department.

McCarty said that after a period of issuing warrants, the county's judges decided they won't use that method to collect traffic fines or other smaller fines.

While issuing warrants on delinquent fines does bring in more money, some people either can't afford to pay their fines or refuse to pay, said McCarty. He said jailing offenders costs the county money and isn't an attractive alternative.

Developing payment plans up front does help, but it is time intensive for staff, said McCarty.

He said Eau Claire supervisors have looked at creating an internal collections agency for all departments but decided that is too expensive.

McCarty said his county published a list of debtors and that worked at first, but in the last few years the method hasn't brought in enough money to continue.

"Human Services is a tough one because most of those people have no dollars," added McCarty of fees for social services.

He said every year for the past few years the Eau Claire County Board has adopted a resolution urging the Wisconsin Legislature to let counties keep more of the fine money they collect.

The more counties collect, the more the state gets, so aggressive collections should be good for both, said McCarty.