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Letter to the Editor-David C. Thompson Benton County Attorney

October 18, 2018
Northern-Sun Print
To the Editor: Recently I was made aware that a candidate for the office of Tama County Attorney was criticizing Tama County Attorney Brent Heeren for Tama County’s participation with Benton County in the collection of Tama County’s past due criminal court debt. This joint effort of Tama and Benton County working together is the result of an agreement pursuant to Iowa Code Chapter 28E. Chapter 28E allows counties to work together and conserve resources for the common good. Tama and Benton entered into this agreement in August of 2014; it should be noted that the Board of Supervisors of both counties approved this agreement. Benton County has been collecting its own court debt since 2011. We tried to collect the debt with our existing staff but the extensive amount of work involved interfered with their essential and primary job duties. Benton County quickly learned that in order to collect this debt, we needed to have at least one full time employee dedicated solely to the collection process. Many counties, for various reasons, choose not to invest in the expense of paying a full time salary and benefits for this purpose. In fact, 34 Iowa counties choose not to collect court debt at all. Of the 65 that do collect, 13 participate in joint collections through a 28E agreement like Tama and Benton. The vast majority (if not all) of these counties have the exact same 28E agreement used by Tama and Benton County. Historically, County Attorney Heeren and I had discussed our respective desire to collect this debt for our counties for well over a decade. The problem our counties faced was the lack of additional office support staff and fiscal resources to pursue debt collection. It was only in 2012 that my office was able to convince the Benton County Supervisors to allow the hiring of an additional full time paralegal to collect this debt. In addition to salary and benefits, the debt collection process requires investment in computers, training, and other expenses (office space, postage, paper, supplies, etc). We currently have two full time paralegals employed in this process; the lowest paid of those two is salaried at $42,230.00 per year. Under our agreement with Tama County, Benton County supplies the collection staff, equipment, office space and expense for the Tama collections effort. Tama County Attorney’s Office appears in Court if any collection matter requires a hearing. It is true that Tama County and Benton County then split the proceeds of the collections. As of September 30, 2018, Tama County has received $160,586.71 and Benton has received $113,503.16 in the 39 months it has spent collecting Tama County criminal court debt. Tama County’s court debt collection program has produced substantial benefits for Tama County. For one, it has allowed the victims of crimes committed in Tama County to receive $172,412.34 in victim restitution payments to date. Further, Tama County receives a revenue stream that it was not receiving before (the money Tama currently receives was going to an out of state third party debt collector). Prior to Tama’s collection efforts, all court debt had a 25% additional fee added to an individual’s account to cover the expense of the third party debt collector (so if an individual was fined $1,000.00 by the Court they now owed $1,250.00). By Tama’s participation in debt collections, that 25 percent markup is removed from the individual’s amount owed. Last, Tama County’s participation in these collections allows individuals to enter into a debt repayment plan and obtain the ability to get a valid driver’s license or register a motor vehicle. Promoting personal responsibility and lawfulness is a goal all counties strive for. Brent Heeren’s leadership in entering Tama County into the debt collection program will have long lasting benefits to Tama County for another reason. By entering Tama County into Court debt collection when he did, Tama County laid claim to the ability to collect ALL past due criminal court debt owed in Tama County. Counties that entered debt collection on or after July 1, 2016 are limited in collecting past due debt to July 1st of the year they started. By Tama County Attorney Heeren’s timely entry into the Court debt collection arena, Tama County will be able to collect a percentage of millions of dollars in unpaid criminal fines and court costs it would not be able to otherwise collect. Our collection department conservatively estimates that Tama County will be entitled to net proceeds well over a million dollars over the next several years that they would not otherwise be able to collect; this is only possible because of Brent Heeren’s actions. Tama County is free to leave our 28E Agreement if it chooses to pursue court debt on its own. However, all actions have corresponding consequences and Tama will need to expend considerable dollars in the form of additional personnel, equipment, time and additional resources in order to collect an amount equal to what Tama is currently receiving under the 28E Agreement. To suggest otherwise is merely wishful thinking. Sincerely yours,

David C. Thompson Benton County Attorney

 
 

 

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