Fight over who should collect millions in unpaid court fines heats up

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by Janet Roach, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on May 20, 2014 at 5:18 PM

Updated Wednesday, May 21 at 6:12 AM

VIRGINIA BEACH -- Virginia House Delegate Johnnie Joannou of Portsmouth is defending his decision to sponsor an amendment that makes it harder for local treasurers to collect delinquent court fines and fees.

The amendment constrains treasurers to only collecting administrative costs and not commission fees on each debt.

The move angers Virginia Beach Treasurer John Atkinson. He recently won the contract from the Commonwealth's Attorney to collect the delinquent fees from Juvenile and Domestic, Circuit, and General District courts.

Atkinson says he was stunned when he was handed over 100,000 unpaid accounts worth more than $40 million. 

"If the judge says, 'Guilty. Go pay your fine.' I go and pay my fine. Well evidently, they don't have to," says Atkinson.

Joannou says Atkinson's office is already supported by taxpayer money and feels people who are delinquent on their accounts shouldn't have to pay extra money to cover Atkinson's 30 percent commission.

"Why should you pay an extra amount of money that's being paid by your tax dollars and my tax dollars?" asked Joannou.

But Atkinson says Joannou's amendment is about protecting the private collections' attorneys who used to handle the contract.

"He's trying to prevent us from competing with the lawyers," Atkinson said.

Several law firms have contracts with various cities in Hampton Roads to collect on the delinquent accounts. They charge a slightly smaller commission fee. When Atkinson won the contract late last year it meant a loss for law firms Poole & Mahoney and Kaufman & Canoles.

Atkinson says his office is more efficient at collecting than private attorneys. In the first three months of the contract he collected $1.6 million and $470,000 went back to the city in added revenue.  He expects to collect $5 to $6 million this year with about a $2 million returned to the city. 

Atkinson says treasurers have more power to collect debts and don't have to tie up court dockets to seek a judge's permission.

Efficiency for Joannou is not the issue. It's about being fair to the taxpayer. He says people have a hard enough time paying their bills.

"It's not a money-making operation," Joannou said.

While Joannou questions where the extra money goes, Atkinson says he's had to hire additional staff for all the extra work.

Newport News Treasurer and President of the Virginia Treasurers Association Marty Eubank says there's no way treasurers can collect the debts without a commission. He says the amendment is a special interest bill that discriminates against treasurers in order to protect the private attorneys.

"Not one dime goes into the treasurer's pocket," Eubank said.

The amendment is attached the state budget, which so far, has not been passed.

So how much is owed in delinquent fines and fees? The State Supreme Court released these figures for each city in Hampton Roads. The amounts include court ordered restitution.

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