Gary Keith, chairman of the judicial panel and District 17 commissioner, said, “$59 million is astronomical and I appreciate that it was brought down to $10 million, but that’s still astronomical.”
Several weeks ago, Keith asked Neal to total how much money was owed the county in uncollected court costs and present it to the committee.
Keith said Tuesday night that he had asked Neal to ballpark the figure and she gave him a number around $100,000. Neal said she never gave Keith or the committee a figure of the uncollected costs.
“At no time did I give a definite amount, this is something that Mr. Keith and I disagree on,” Neal said at the meeting.
When the computer error produced the $59 million figure, Neal admitted she shared it with Keith without rechecking the numbers first. Neal said Keith went to the media with that figure “in an effort, I believe, to destroy me and my office and to bring embarrassment to the county.”
She added she wished Keith had come to her with his comments instead of accusing her of not doing her job in the media.
Neal received help from the Administrative Office of the Courts, which worked to resolve the computer error and produce the correct figures for Neal and the judicial committee.
Amanda Hughes of the AOC spoke before the committees and explained how they recalculated the figures after correcting the previous computer error. She said while the new figure is accurate, it is not an exact amount.
“This is not set in stone…some of those (costs) are going to the city of Lebanon, Mt. Juliet and Watertown,” Hughes said, referring to service fees, drug fines and DUI fines.
The majority of the uncollected costs are from civil and criminal cases in General Sessions Court with a total of $5,495,893.94 from Jan. 1, 2000 to April 4, 2010. The second-largest portion is from the criminal cases in Circuit Court totaling $3,547,441.52 in the past 10 years.
Keith asked Hughes how Wilson County stacks up with neighboring counties or as compared to counties statewide, and Hughes said she has not looked specifically at other counties, but was not surprised by the $9 million figure.
“I would say you’re as pretty good as the rest. It’s hard to collect court costs and I’m not shocked by these figures,” Hughes said.
Neal and attorney Frank Lannom of Lannom & Williams said that most people who owe court costs cannot pay them or simply will not pay them, and there’s no enforcing law to make them pay the costs.
“Neither Mrs. Neal, nor anyone else is going to be able to collect those, that’s just a fact of life of the court system,” Lannom said.
Adding to that difficulty, Neal explained they can collect fees as far back as 10 years, but any fees owed beyond that 10-year period her office cannot collect for legal reasons. Currently, the clerk’s office is using the private company Solutia, to help collect fees.
“I just issue the paperwork, I don’t go out and find them,” Neal said, referring to people who owe court costs.
Solutia has been collecting fees for Neal’s office for almost three years and she said she is happy with the job they have done thus far. Despite the third party’s manpower, she pointed out her office cannot allow case files to leave the office and her staff has to issue paperwork on a case-by-case basis.
Keith and other members of the committee asked Neal if she had an employee tasked specifically to issue the paperwork and collect fees that are owed to the county. With her current staff, Neal said she cannot dedicate someone to that job alone.
“If you need employees, let’s look at it, if you need equipment, let’s look at it,” Keith said.
Neal pointed out she has a part time employee that works three days a week, who she could put to the task of collecting fees, but said she needs at least one other part time employee in her office.
In order to hire another employee, the letter of agreement between the clerk’s office and County Mayor Randall Hutto must be amended to increase the maximum number of employees the clerk can have.
“If they got half the $9 million, that’s worth the 1-1/2 employee,” said District 20 Commissioner Annette Stafford.
Hutto said if he had known about the outstanding costs he would have made giving Neal another employee a top priority when he took office. Neal said she has asked the previous County mayor and Hutto for an additional employee.
“I need a little bit of time to explore the options and get back with you,” Hutto told the committees.
Keith asked that Neal report monthly to the judicial committee with updated figures of how much is owed to the county in uncollected court costs. Neal said she would be more than happy to do that in the future.
“If you would have made me aware, I guarantee you I would have come to your aid,” Keith said in regards to the uncollected fees and Neal’s need for additional help.
Staff Writer Patrick Hall may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.