Arlington to hire agency to collect fines, fees

ARLINGTON — The city plans to hire a collection agency to help clear a portion of more than $16 million in outstanding fines and fees at Arlington Municipal Court.

The proposed contract would not cost the city a cent because the collection agency would be paid through an additional state-sanctioned court fee attached to each outstanding Class C misdemeanor ticket the agency clears. The Arlington City Council is set to consider the proposal at its meeting Tuesday night.

The Municipal Court, which was unable to collect on more than $2.5 million in fines and fees last year, has about 61,000 outstanding warrants.

“These fines are imposed for breaking the law. If they are not paying the fines, they are not being punished,” Mayor Pro Tem Ron Wright said. “We want people to know if they violate the law in Arlington, they will be punished and we will go after them to collect.”

The backlog has been exacerbated the past couple of years by performance problems with the court’s new records management system and an ongoing criminal investigation of employee theft of fine money, city officials said.

Police estimate that thousands of people avoided arrest last year during the investigation, which prevented officers from confirming Class C misdemeanor warrants for nearly five months, police spokesman Lt. Blake Miller said.

Doubt was cast on the legitimacy of tickets the court had listed as unpaid after investigators determined a court clerk was pocketing thousands of dollars of fine money. The former clerk, 23-year-old Crystal Leonguerrero of Arlington was indicted on felony charges in September and is awaiting trial. A call to Leonguerrero’s attorney, Samantha Hill, was not returned Friday.

Detectives have been unable to determine how many people may have been affected by the case and are investigating whether others might be involved, police Sgt. James Crouch said. The city has made several efforts, including setting up a phone number for people to check if their fines were paid to ensure that no one was wrongly arrested on warrants, Crouch said.

Now that officers are checking for Arlington warrants again, the reprieve has ended.

Last week, Arlington police arrested a theft suspect who had 40 class C misdemeanor warrants in the city. Most were for traffic violations, including 12 citations for no insurance, 15 for no valid driver’s license and three speeding tickets.

Court Administrator Bob Byrd said hiring a collection agency with aggressive collection strategies, which include mail and telephone notifications and filing lawsuits when necessary, should help further reduce the warrant backlog.

The city wants to contract with Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, which it has used since 1990 to collect delinquent property taxes. If the firm is hired, outstanding fines would increase 15 to 30 percent to cover the agency’s collection fees, Byrd said. For example, a $175 speeding ticket issued after June 18, 2003, would increase 30 percent to $227. Tickets issued before that 2003 date would increase by only 15 percent under the proposed contract.

The city has used a collection agency in the past to reduce the warrant backlog, but the efforts were not aggressive enough, Byrd said.

Operational and computer system improvements continue to be made to address other problems plaguing the court, Byrd said.

The city is working with Professional Computer Software Services of Fort Worth to correct performance issues with the court’s records system. Court officials complained to the City Council last year that the system, which was supposed to help the court handle its 200,000 cases a year more efficiently, has performed poorly since it was installed in 2004 and does not have all the expected functions. The city has spent more than $1 million on the system. Professional Computer Software Services has made several adjustments to the system, such as speeding up its processing time, a major complaint, Byrd said.

Additionally, the city has hired outside consultants and is conducting an internal audit to identify areas for software and operational improvements within the court, he said.

The council is also expected to vote Tuesday on a resolution to appoint two new part-time associate municipal judges and reappoint one part-time associate municipal judge to handle jail arraignments and court dockets for the next two years.