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Unpaid fines reduce tax refund checks for some Wisconsinites

It is that time of year when some taxpayers look forward to refund checks from state and federal governments.

But some Wisconsin tax return checks may be lighter than expected because St. Croix County deducted unpaid fines from the total.

Clerk of Court Lori Meyer said her office started collecting tax intercept payments through the Wisconsin Department of Revenue in 2003.

"We have reached a financial milestone by collecting one-third of a million dollars so far," Meyer said last week.

Figures from the clerk's office show a total balance owed of $4,434,988 since 2003 on some 13,525 debts. "We've collected $335,744 to date," she said.

"State law allows a government entity to use tax refund interception as a means of collecting debts owed," said Meyer. "As it relates to circuit courts, tax intercept is useful in recovering monies that a defendant has been ordered to pay by the clerk of court," she said.

Some of the debts incurred result from fines and other costs related to prosecution in criminal, traffic, and forfeiture cases. Defendants may also have debts for court provided attorney fees.

There are times when a defendant in a criminal case does not qualify for a public defender, but lacks the financial means to hire a private lawyer. If the defendant qualifies for court-appointed counsel, the costs are paid for by the county, but the defendant is required to provide full reimbursement. If the defendant fails to pay their attorney fees, the clerk of court submits the debt to the state for interception of the defendant's state tax refund. 

Meyer said that the law provides for tax refund interception of Wisconsin refunds only. Federal income tax refunds cannot be intercepted for debts owed to the local court.

That's a particular problem for a border county like St. Croix where the local court loses out when fines are owed by persons who reside in Minnesota.

Tax refund interception is just one of the tools the courts have for collecting on unpaid court obligations, but it is a very effective tool, said Meyer. Other means include driver's license suspension, warrants for arrest, civil judgments and wage garnishment.