A bill that would force Milwaukee County to use the Department of Revenue as a debt collection agency poses big questions and may create big problems for the entire court state system, the state's top courts administrator said last week.
And Milwaukee County Clerk of Circuit Court John Barrett said the bill, Assembly Bill 885, relegates victim restitution "to secondary status" because the bill specifically excludes restitution from the types of debt the state would collect for the county.
"If the legislature is truly concerned about crime victims, then restitution should be turned over and collected with equal vigor as these other debts," he said.
The bill, supported by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele, would require Milwaukee County have the State Department of Revenue to collect outstanding debt owed to the county. Other counties may have such agreements with DOR, but they are voluntary, not mandatory.
The Milwaukee bill would require that $1 million per year or 50% of collections, whichever is less, go to the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board for job training programs, and would financially penalize the county if DOR believed the county was not notifying it of all the debt the state could collect on the county's behalf.
Director of State Courts J. Dennis Moran, in written testimony to the Assembly Committee on State Affairs and Government Operations, outlined a series of questions about the bill and its potential impacts on the courts. Moran did not take a position on the bill, but submitted his testimony for information only.
How, he asked, are courts supposed to link collections by the state to the individual court cases from which they arise? "How will the Clerk record the payments for the fees, surcharges and other statutory court-ordered amounts that are collected? There are currently approximately 50 different accounts that we track and report on every month," he said.
Barrett, in a letter to the committee, presented a chart of payments that he said represented a typical second offense OWI case. Money is allocated to state and county agencies for different purposes. The chart does not include the 15% surcharge the Department of Revenue would levy as a collection fee. "Under this bill court imposed penalties will no longer be paid to the Clerk of Circuit Court," Barrett said in a letter. "Does this statute absolve the Clerk of Circuit Court of those allocation responsibilities?"
Moran asked whether the annual MAWIB grant would come from money owed to courts. If so, that could divert money from purposes designated by law. The bill also is unclear about whether it would restrict judges in establishing appropriate payment plans for defendants, he said.
"Payment plans are not just about collecting the maximum amount for the state and county coffers; they are also important tools for enforcing court orders," he said. "Judges often have to balance a party's resources against obligations for child support, substance abuse treatment, family counseling, attorney fees, and other costs associated with the case. Courts need the ability to set the terms of any repayment plan, and that need continues well after the judgment is entered."
Moran worried that the punishment the state could mete out if it felt the county did not certify enough debt for collection could hurt the Clerk of Court office. "If that happens, there is the potential to cripple our largest court, a court that handles more than 100,000 cases every year," he said.
The state's computer system for courts, CCAP, does not now talk to the DOR system, Moran said. "We do not know the cost or the length of time it would take to build such an interface.... CCAP has already suffered from declining program revenues over the last several years, and this would add to the current strain on its resources," he said.
"And finally," Moran wrote, "does AB 885 set a precedent that will hurt other clerks of court if they choose to use DOR debt collection? Will it be forced upon them, as this bill does to Milwaukee County?"
The committee, on a 9-4 vote, recommended passage of the bill.
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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