City sees near-record fine revenues in February

Staff Writer

West Point’s crackdown on unpaid city court fines produced $57,565 in collections in February with $37,398.25 of that going to the city.

The rest went to the state as part of the state’s share of fines and fees.

Meanwhile, the city will solicit interest from Clay County lawyers to act as a public defender in city court.

Letters will go out to lawyers this week with responses due next week.

Selectmen Leta Turner and William Binder have been discussing the idea with Judges Bennie Jones and Mark Cliett, who have recommended having public defenders to represent people charged in crimes that could led to jail time as misdemeanors or lead to felonies in the future. They also want them for people charged with felonies who seek hearings in Municipal Court.

Shoplifting and DUI are the biggest potential offenses that can lead to jail. Three convictions of either within five years is a felony punishable by up to five years.

Turner and Binder haven’t recommended a pay range for the position, which still must be approved by the full Board of Selectmen when it meets tonight.

“We haven’t discussed pay yet, that’s something we’ll get into when we see what kind of interest we have,” Binder said.

The state Supreme Court has pushed justice and municipal courts to do more to protect offenders’ rights, both in terms of bonds and representation at hearings. It’s led to the growth in public defenders in lower courts across the state.

West Point already has paid a public defender $600 for three cases and Cliett has suggested maybe paying between $600 and $1,000 a month for the service. Some cities pay by the caseload and some pay by the day.

The city hopes to have someone in the position by next month.

Clay County Justice Court is expected to follow the city’s lead.

Meanwhile, the effort to lean up the city’s unpaid fine list is working, even if slowly.

Last month’s crackdown produced near-record collections last month and city leaders expect that to continue.

And overall, the conscious effort in monitoring the fines is making a difference.

“Our job isn’t to collect fines, but we do have an obligation to make sure they are paid and that’s what we are doing, that people are accountable and everyone is treated fairly,” Mayor Robbie Robinson said during a Selectmen study session Monday night.

Since the budget year started last July, the city has received $137,541.38 as its share of fines collected. Another $79,065.50 has gone to the state.

For the 12-month budget year which ends in June, the city projected collecting $150,000 as its share of fines. After last month’s surge and with four months remaining, the city now thinks it may hit $200,000, well ahead of the $150,000 budgeted.

The February total was the second highest in the last three years with more than $39,000 going to the city in February 2016.

“We’ll continue to monitor it and see how it goes,” Robinson said. “We think it is being done properly.”

On Feb. 2, the city posted 40 pages of names of people either owing old fines or who had never shown up for court to face charges. Some dated back more than a decade and the fines totaled $1 million.

More than 80 people showed up in court Feb. 22 and either paid off their fines, got payment plans, had the charges dismissed or were given court dates. The dates start next week.

After the list was cleaned up, a new list was posted this past weekend with a March 22 court date set.