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Carbon tables motion to hire outside agency for delinquent fines

A decision on whether or not to hire a third-party collection agency for the Carbon County clerk of courts office will wait another month.

Carbon County Commissioners on Thursday tabled a motion to hire Penn Credit Corp. to assist with the collection of costs, fines and restitution on delinquent accounts after the clerk of court’s collection division has exhausted all resources to collect outstanding debts.

“I don’t want to turn this into a political issue, but I think we should wait a month and then come back to this,” Commissioners’ Chairman Wayne Nothstein said. Nothstein voted to table along with Commissioner Rocky Ahner.

It is the second week in a row the county has debated hiring Penn Credit, who would tack on a 25 percent fee to the outstanding debt total per case.

“You’re putting a 25% fee added to the outstanding bills that these people are already having difficulty paying,” Nothstein said. “We have a system that we use right now to make credit plans available for people to make their payments.”

Clerk of Courts Tyra Boni said the collections division in her department is responsible for collecting court costs, fines and restitution owed to victims, taxpayers, the state, boroughs and municipalities. At the conclusion of the backlog from the previous administration, she added, there was $25 million outstanding, of which $6.5 million is delinquent.

“The previous administration had an antiquated process in place for waiting on defendants to contact the office, including multiple mailed notices with minimal communications and no pursuit of delinquency accounts,” Boni said. “Historically, the longer the funds stand outstanding delinquent, the harder they are to collect the one. For this reason, the best way to address the issue of delinquency is prevention.”

Speaking to her department’s process, Boni said the collections coordinator directly sets up a payment plan within 10 days after the court order and caution is mailed to the defendants, as well as laying out a structured plan for those delinquencies.

The department can also provide an option of electronic delinquency notifications for defendants. Those notifications are sent out the 10th of every month.

The defendants, she said, still get a mailed copy of their delinquency notice, if they have not paid by 10 days after the text message and email correspondence.

“Both the text message, email and mail delinquency notices have decreased monthly demonstrating success rates or collections divisions,” Boni said. “However, delinquency in this county is still an issue.”

Once a delinquent account receives three consecutive monthly mailed notices, their case is forwarded to Alliance One collection agency and 20% is added to the total owed by the defendant.

“If we’ve exhausted every avenue we can, if they are denying all of those notices, and not paying, the outstanding collection agency is our next option,” Boni said.

Both Nothstein and Ahner, however, said that if that last resort is being reached, the money stands a very small chance of being collected.

“My understanding is that if they don’t pay anything within a certain amount of period of time, it comes back to the courts again,” Ahner said. “So my concern is that it’s going to sit for six months, and it’s going to come back to the judges again. So what are we really doing here.”

Lukasevich said nobody within the county’s court system voiced opposition to bringing Penn Credit on board.

“These criminals aren’t making payments,” Lukasevich, who voted against tabling the motion, said. “We as elected officials have a moral obligation to the taxpayer, to the county and to the victims to go after these funds. Anything short of that speaks to the person who votes against it. Whether it is 25% or 20%, it’s all in the same ballpark. No collection agency is going to do this for less.”

Sydney Wernett, Boni’s challenger for the clerk of courts position in the November election, reiterated her stance against the Penn Credit hire.

“Penn Credit Corporation is an ineffective and inefficient way to collect delinquent court costs fines and restitution,” Wernett said. “There are other ways for the bureau of collections to go after this money than just sending out delinquent letters. It takes legwork to do it.”

Also before the vote, Jim Thorpe resident Jerry Hoare said he’s heard Penn Credit, “is pretty heavy handed with their collection techniques.”

“There are lots of complaints online,” Hoare said. “The Better Business Bureau has almost 200 complaints about them. I don’t know whether your county wants their name associated with that type of heavy handed collections.”

Boni, however, said Penn Credit has the resources the county doesn’t have and can’t afford.

“They have the resources to go and locate these individuals,” Boni said. “Those programs cost the county. If I were put in a budget request, it would cost us thousands of dollars. I’m not willing to do that. Without Penn Credit, I can’t say for sure, but I can estimate that the money will just sit there stagnant until the courts decide what we’re going to do as a means of going after these individuals to pay.”