New court fees collection burdens cities

By Justin Boron

A controversial state law, which overhauled Georgia's indigent defense program this year, looks to be a sensitive issue for municipalities when legislators meet in January next year.

The program, intended to provide defense for those who cannot afford an attorney, has already made waves locally in the selection of the firm that would handle the work for Clayton County.

Now, some local cities have voiced their concern over the law's payment schedule for an array of state mandated surcharges and fees, which city courts collect and distribute to various state administered programs including indigent defense.

Coming out of the May special session, House Bill 1EX created a situation in which all state surcharges tacked onto municipal court fines would be paid before the city collects money for itself, said Amy Henderson, a communications assistant for the Georgia Municipal Association.

The payment schedule prioritizes fine collection so that the state receives funds for its beneficiaries before the city can collect what it needs to offset probation and court costs, she said.

Even though the city collects for the state, none of the "add-ons" benefit the city court, said Ted Baggett, the associate general counsel for Municipal Association.

"Municipal court is totally city operated," he said. "We should be getting our fine revenue first.

"They have commandeered us to be revenue generators," Baggett said. "They were looking to generate revenue, and this was a politically painless way to do it."

By placing the state fees ahead of municipal collection, the law burdens cities with extemporaneous conditions beyond its control.

If a person violates his or her probation, the city bears the weight of the uncollected fines, said Minette Pass, the Riverdale Court Administrator.

"If a person pays only enough to cover the surcharges, and then (their probation) is revoked, the city would not be refunded."

Having gained no revenue from the probation, the city would not have any money to cover the incarceration of a probation violator, she said.

Riverdale City Manager Iris Jessie said while the payment procedure is unfair, the city is doing what it needs to comply.

"It's just a hardship," she said.

Other cities locally and statewide also are grappling with the law's impact, Jessie said.

"We're just like a lot of other municipalities," she said. "Several of the cities were really complaining about it."

Forest Park City Manager Bill Werner said in effort to comply with the law, the city contacted several other jurisdictions that were also upset.

At a legislative breakfast held in November, local cities met with a representative of municipal association and criticized the group for doing little to block this part of the law, Jessie said.

But Baggett said there was not much the group could do during the special session.

"It came fast and furious," he said.

The law is on the organization's legislative agenda for this year and it hopes to see some improvement on the burdens placed on the city, Henderson said.

State Sen. Valencia Seay, who represents much of Clayton County, said she would be doing her part to ensure places like Riverdale get a fair shake.

"I can assure from my perspective, we will be looking closer at the system," she said.

While cities wait for possible changes in the next legislative session, many municipal courts have been left to unravel the knot of fees and add-ons it must pay the state.

"It's creating a bureaucratic nightmare," Baggett said.

If it makes a mistake in its payment procedure, the clerk of court could face felony jail time, Henderson said.

"If they don't do it right, they could be in big trouble," she said.

Amid the stringent guidelines for paying the surcharges, Riverdale officials are uncertain on how to proceed with the law's requirement that cities pay all of its probation fees collected since July.

Riverdale City Clerk Sandra Meyers said she did not know whether the city would pay in a lump some or through partial payments.

If the city pays all at once, it could face writing a check for about $200,000, Meyers said.

The situation in Riverdale is further complicated by the city's failure to have a separate account for the fees, which it has been required to have even before the new legislation, Pass said.

As a result, the city will pull back the fees it has comingled with its general fund, Meyers said.

Georgia Municipal Association said it is working a publication to clarify the law for court administrators.