SIOUX CITY | Woodbury County officials are eyeing hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be collected to boost the county budget and prevent future property tax increases.
The county is owed an estimated $11.5 million in overdue court fines, and a chunk of that could wind up in county coffers if an efficient collection method is put in place. The fines are assessed by judges for criminal conduct, such as convictions for drunken driving and assault.
Woodbury County Sheriff Dave Drew said the county could initially reap $400,000 if the outstanding fines were collected. Additional revenue would come from fines assessed in future years.
About $100,000 in unpaid fines is added per month, or about $1.2 million over a year, Drew's office estimated. Some Iowa counties receive 30 to 40 percent of the total amount they bring in from overdue fines, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars being dumped into their budgets.
To date, Woodbury County officials have not sought to collect the money, but with county Finance Director Dennis Butler saying the county is strapped for revenue, that could soon change. Butler periodically made the point as the County Board worked through six meetings to set a 2014-15 fiscal year budget.
Butler said even if it meant hiring a few people to collect the overdue fines, the revenue would more than offset their salaries, resulting in a net gain for the county.
County Attorney P.J. Jennings said he hopes to bring a proposal to the board by early summer on what it would take for his office to get involved in the collection process. He declined to discuss staffing, estimated costs and revenue specifics pending further research.
"I do believe it is a topic that should be explored and if successful would potentially be a good source of revenue for the county," Jennings said.
Drew said people who need to pay overdue fines in order to regain driving privileges will have an incentive to do so.
"These are fines that were imposed by the courts, and they need to be collected," Drew said.
How other counties seize big money
Iowa leaves it up to counties to implement vigorous fine-collection programs, but 2009 legislation that increased their share of the revenue made it more worthwhile for them, state Court Administration Legal Counsel Betty Buitenwerf said.
More than half the money goes to the state, but counties can use the excess to cover General Basic Fund expenses. The splitting formula is complex, depending on whether the court assessed surcharges, as well as other factors.
Some counties run a collection program through the sheriff's office and others through their county attorney.
Butler cited Plymouth and Linn counties as examples where fine collections resulted in substantial revenues.
Plymouth County Auditor Stacey Feldman said the program has worked overwhelmingly well, delivering hundreds of thousands of dollars since it was implemented about seven years ago. In fiscal year 2014-15, she expects revenue of $100,000 for the General Basic Fund and $50,000 to the Attorney Delinquent Incentive Collection Fund in the county attorney's budget.
"Once you get the program established, it's pretty healthy money," Feldman said. "It's a win-win."
One attorney in the Plymouth County Attorney office dedicates time to fine collections. Plymouth County Attorney Darin Raymond declined an interview request, saying the collection process requires hours to properly explain.
On July 1, 2003, the Linn County attorney designated the Linn County Sheriff's Office to act as agent for collecting past-due court fines.
When Sheriff Brian Gardner took office in 2009, Major Doug Riniker took leadership of the fine collection program. With stronger enforcement, the county reaped $267,000 in fiscal 2008-09. In fiscal 2012-13, the amount was $807,000.
"We are closing in on the $1 million mark," Riniker said.
He said the county's take is roughly 28 percent of the amount of delinquent fines eventually paid.
The Linn County Board hired workers to boost the effort in the Sheriff's Office Finance Division, and now five people work on the endeavor on a part-time or full-time basis. He noted the amount brought in to the county well exceeds the personnel costs.
"This is an untapped resource and I would tell Woodbury County to do this," Riniker said.
Some people owe thousands in fines. The Linn County Sheriff's Office takes cash, checks, wage assignments, debit or credit card payments at times, while also setting up monthly payments. Riniker aims to receive minimum monthly payments of $80.
"We are all for being reasonable," he said.
The Polk County Attorney's Office in 2007 began a push to collect delinquent court debt. Polk County Attorney John Sarcone said getting money from people in sometimes dire financial situations can be tough. But many want to pay, to be done with looking over their shoulder and worrying about being ticketed for driving without a license, he said.
By the second year, the Polk County effort collected $537,000, of which $228,315 went to the county coffers. That amount rose to substantially more than $1 million collected in each of the last three years in Polk County, where six workers are devoted to the task. The most recent amount going into the Polk County budget is $1.8 million.
"It has progressively gotten better," Sarcone said.