published Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

Marion County, Tenn., court fine plan not working

  • photo
    Detective Gene Hargis of the Marion County, Tenn., Sheriff's Office stands at the site of a methamphetamine lab in Jasper.
    Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

JASPER, Tenn. — Marion County’s attempt to collect unpaid fines and court costs has failed, and now county leaders are going to re-examine the issue in hopes of coming up with a permanent solution.

The County Commission hired a collection agency two years ago in hopes of recouping the lost money, but last week County Mayor John Graham said it’s just not working out.

“We’re not paying anything [for the collection service],” he said. “The collector gets a fixed rate off anything he collects, but he’s not collecting much money at all.”

In talking with officials at the collection agency, Graham said they “just make excuse after excuse,” and the county is still not getting any of the unpaid fines.

“Maybe we need to send him on packing and hire somebody else,” Commissioner Tommy Thompson said.

Graham said he thinks the county should look at replacing the firm.

“It’s not working,” he said. “It worked pretty good initially, but it’s not anymore.”

The contract between the county and the agency can be terminated by either side at any time without penalty, he said.

Thompson said the county’s Sessions Court is doing “a pretty good job” of collecting fines and court costs right now by tying the payments to offenders’ probation.

“If you deny them probation, they’re going to come up with some fine money,” he said.

The county’s circuit judges need to do the same, Thompson said, and that will help bring more revenue in for the county.

Officials estimated the county had more than $201,000 in uncollected fines and costs in 2011.

In April 2011, commission Chairman Gene Hargis estimated the county has lost nearly $1.5 million in unpaid court fines over the past decade.

“We need to do something because we’ve got so much money outstanding on it,” Thompson said. “It’s getting to where we try to rob the property owners [by raising taxes] every time [the county] turns around for money.”

The board’s finance committee will discuss the issue at its next meeting and make a recommendation to the county commission next month, officials said.

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