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Cities recommend lien for fines

By MARLAN JONES,

Last month the Mayor and Board of Aldermen of Mendenhall and Magee made a common decision. Both cities adopted a resolution presented by the Mississippi Municipal League urging the Mississippi Legislature to allow municipalities to submit debts owed to them and the state to the Department of Revenue.

The resolution states that debts as a result of delinquent traffic fines and fees will be submitted to the Department of Revenue for collection through a setoff against state income tax refunds owed to the debtor.

The resolution stated that if the Mississippi Legislature allows municipalities to submit these debts to be set off against the income tax refunds of the debtors, the state shall be entitled to approximately 50 percent of any recouped outstanding fines and fees owed to the municipality.

In simpler terms, this gives cities the means to collect debts on unpaid traffic fines by garnishing state income tax refunds. By doing so the city is only entitled to approximately half of the debt, and the other half goes to the state.

For example, in the City of Magee a DUI carries a $1,218 fine with $899 being paid to the city. If the Department of Revenue collects the debt from a debtor’s state in come tax return the city would only receive $449.50. This resolution was adopted unanimously by both boards.

Magee Mayor Dale Berry said, “We are asking the legislature to look into this this winter and spring and allow us to take from state tax refunds for fines.” Berry explained that the City of Magee is owed approximately 4.5 million dollars in unpaid fines. He described this as the approximate amount that appears on paper, but admitted that these numbers were somewhat inaccurate. Berry explained that some of the people who are still on the ledger for owing fines are now deceased, but the money is still owed to the city. Berry believes that Mississippi is the only state in the South yet to pass this bill. He said that this will be a positive step for municipalities in recouping unpaid fines.

According to Magee City Clerk Lane Yearby, this legislation has been presented many times but always fails. The verbiage in the proclamation means gain for municipalities and the state, but there are still questions in regard to enforcement.

Two types of warrants  are commonly issued through the court system when dealing with traffic citations. A failure to appear warrant is issued after a defendant receives a citation and fails to appear for the established court date. A failure to pay warrant is issued after the defendant pleas or is found guilty and fails to pay the fine. A failure to appear warrant often carries a $50-$100 fine per case, but the defendant still has the right to procedural due process since there was no admission or judgment of guilt. It is still unclear as to what point during the process is the fine money  owed to the city.

Mendenhall Court Clerk Lori King explained that the majority of Mendenhall’s warrants were failure to appear. King estimated that courts the size of Mendenhall are usually owed over $1 million in warrants and unpaid fines. When asked the difference between the two warrants and how it will affect collection she said, “In my experience the State Auditor doesn’t consider that money is owed to the city until they are adjudicated as guilty.”

Magee City Clerk Lane Yearby said that the traffic ticket is an affidavit to appear in court and that the Department of Revenue could still collect on failure to appear warrants. She also explained that the City of Magee offers payment plans and alternative payment methods for paying fines.

A percentage of the fines owed to the cities come from out of state travelers. The Mississippi Department of Revenue would not be able to collect from travelers who live in other states.

Yearby said, “We are not going to catch all of it, but there is not a lot of out of state fines and several states have already passed this.”

Mendenhall Mayor Todd Booth explained that even receiving a fraction of what was owed to the city in fines would increase revenue and aid in making improvements around town.

When asked an estimated dollar amount Mendenhall could expect if the legislation was passed, King said, “Until someone can clarify which sets of fines the legislation is going to collect, I can’t tell how much money the city is going to profit from this legislation.”

Berry said that MML lobbyist Trey Bobinger is working to push the legislation through, and Representative Andy Gipson and Senator Chris Caughman both support it.