SIKESTON -- When it comes to collecting past due municipal court fines, there is only so much a city can legally do -- and Sikeston has tried it all.
As of Sept. 29, a total of $279,729.13 was owed to the city in unpaid fines, costs and fees, according to Linda Lowes, director of governmental services.
Unpaid fines make up $175,322 of that figure, according to Lowes.
Another $66,774 are jail costs owed to the city by offenders.
"Those are people our judge had sentenced to jail and they have to reimburse the city for jail costs, so those aren't really outstanding fines," Lowes said. The cost per day to be housed in area jails runs from $30 at the Scott County Jail to $45 at Butler County's facility.
"The remaining amounts are state court costs, local court costs, fees for law enforcement training funds, crime victim fees and a domestic violence surcharge fee, which supports the local domestic violence shelter," Lowes said.
Lowes said the city currently uses and has tried in the past several different avenues for collecting this money.
"We work on it, but it's common for municipal courts across the state," Lowes said. "Our municipal court clerks go to regional and state meeting and this has been the topic: How do we go about collecting these fines?"
Some measures used by the city, such as putting arrest warrants out for those with unpaid fines, have long been used by other governments around the nation and the world.
Other methods tried by the city could be considered innovative.
"It wasn't until the past year that the state of Missouri even suggested using collection agencies," Lowes said. "We did that about four years ago. The first 18 months was very successful and then after than, it was cost prohibitive to continue."
The city now also places liens on drivers licenses for unpaid fines. This prevents the renewal of the license until the fine is paid.
"It's a longterm method but it is very effective -- it gets people's attention in a hurry," Lowes said.
For those who are not so much unwilling to pay as unable, there is the option to let them work it off.
"Some of them are doing that right now. That is a project that has been in the process for some time," Lowes said. "We do have a very active community service program -- very active."
A total of $322,423.14 worth of community service has been completed since 2000 between maintenance and janitorial jobs at City Hall and working for the city's parks and street departments as well as at the the humane society and nutrition center, according to Lowes.
This option has several limits, however.
"It has to be voluntary; we can't force people to work against their will," Lowes said.
There are limits even among those who are willing.
"Some people are not supposed do physical labor, some people are security risks -- we have to consider the safety of our citizens, the employers that are using the community service as well as the well being of the person that is performing the community service," Lowes said.
In short, when it comes to the city's efforts to collect outstanding fines, "we're doing all we can within the boundaries we have to work within," Lowes said.
Having their own jail facilities, county governments often just stick with the lock 'em up method for dealing with unpaid fines.
"We do not have past due fines. Our associate division judge, the honorable Charles L. Spitler, requires every defendant to pay all fines and court costs in full," said Marsha Holiman, New Madrid County circuit clerk. "In instances of a defendant's inability to pay in full at their first court appearance, the judge will allow them some time but orders their reappearance in his court until the fine is paid in full. The average time to collect for these fines is one month. In Division I cases, the honorable Fred W. Copeland only requires defendants to reappear in his court if their County Law Enforcement Restitution Fund cost is not paid within the time he specifies."
As for court costs, "collection is monitored by State of Missouri, Division of Probation and Parole," Holiman said.
Christy Hency at the Scott County circuit clerk's office said Scott County's consolidated court system uses three programs to collect fines.
"They can enter a plea of guilty and enter their payment directly to the Fine Collection Center," Hency said. "Also known as FCC, it processes qualifying traffic, conservation and water craft violations. It allows violators quicker case disposition by submitting a plea of guilty along with payment directly to the FCC. It also enforces uniform statewide fines which creates a fair system. The court benefits because the FCC provides more efficient collection rates, reduced clerical time and a higher degree of accountability. Non-qualifying violations continue to be submitted directly to the court system."
Hency said Scott County's courts also participate in the Tax Offset Program.
"The Tax Offset Program and Debt Collection Program kind of go hand-in-
hand. Each collection route requires a person to be setup on a payment plan. The payment plan allows the person adequate time to submit payment to the court in full, or if that is not feasible, in payments," she explained. "If the party does not abide by the payment plan conditions, the account becomes delinquent. Participation in the Tax Offset Program permits the individual's income tax refund to be intercepted. In the same scenario, by participating in the Debt Collection Program, a private contractor known as LDC is permitted to pursue collection of the debt. LDC receives payment for their services by tacking an additional 20 percent fee to all past-due amounts. This 20 percent is above and beyond the amount owed to the county or state and neither entity is out money to use this resource."
But, Hency concluded, "The reality is you can't get blood from a turnip, but by actively participating in all three of these programs, there remains no stone unturned in our efforts."