Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2014

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COURTS:

Collecting fines has a whole new urgency

Amnesty almost over, but enforcement’s not

At Las Vegas Justice Court, unpaid traffic fines owed to the county have piled up over the past 15 years. The total now is a staggering $138.3 million, and officials say they’re finally on a course to whittle it down.

What took so long?

A proactive attitude began to emerge in 2005 after District Court administrators were given authority to take charge of Justice Court.

Assistant District Court Administrator Tim Davis, who now oversees Justice Court, says the new regime knew coming in that the collection system needed an overhaul. It was obvious from the up-to-four-hour wait in the lines to pay tickets.

A new high-tech case management system eventually cut the average wait time to 20 minutes. An automated system to allow people to pay their traffic and parking fines by phone was added. Then, in September 2006, Justice Court officials suspended the enforcement of arrest warrants as part of an amnesty program to encourage more traffic offenders to pay up.

These and other steps could have been taken years ago. But before the takeover, no one in management at Justice Court was willing to push the collection effort. So fines kept mounting, putting the court years behind other jurisdictions and depriving the county of cash needed to ease a growing budget crisis.

Justice Court’s amnesty program ends Feb. 6, which means officials will resume serving arrest warrants, as well as adding penalty fees of $300 or more to each ticket. Las Vegas Constable Bobby Gronauer is gearing up to knock on doors.

At the same time, officials are beefing up enforcement elsewhere.

In November, a compliance unit started working the phones at the Regional Justice Center. For eight hours a day each week, four compliance officers, sitting in cubicles tucked away in a corner of court’s traffic division, do nothing but call hundreds of people with unpaid tickets to arrange for them to make payments.

Gabriyelle Gaines, a former elementary school teacher who spent 10 years with top collection agencies, was hired to head the unit. Her immediate goal is to put the unit in a position to collect $384,000 a month in outstanding fines.

Since November, according to records provided by Justice Court, the unit has been responsible for bringing in $418,665, which isn’t a bad start.

“We’ve got no where to go but up,” Gaines says. “There are plenty of opportunities out there.”

Make that $138.3 million worth of opportunities.

But the collection efforts don’t stop with Gaines and her compliance unit.

Davis says court officials also have hired NCO Financial Systems, a nationally known collection agency, to help hunt for the deadbeats.

Court officials won’t say how much of the $138.3 million they hope to collect with these new methods. This kind of dedicated enforcement is so new to them, they don’t seem to have figured out that part of the equation.

That probably isn’t surprising considering that it took officials in downtown Las Vegas so long to adopt a proven tactic that smaller jurisdictions across the nation put to use years ago.

Officials here say they have collected roughly $32 million in unpaid fines each of the past two years. But records they provided show that they also have failed to collect more than $72.5 million during the same period.

At least officials, at long last, have the right attitude.

“Our focus is removing the barriers for people to take care of their obligations,” Davis says. “We’re trying to make things as simple as possible.”

Jeff German is the Sun’s senior investigative reporter.

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