City not utilizing fine collection service

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, October 28, 2015

NATCHEZ — The City of Natchez could potentially be missing out on thousands of dollars in “free money” from the state through the city’s municipal court.

That was a repeated point in a presentation Deborah Sivira of American Municipal Services (AMS) made to the Natchez Board of Aldermen Tuesday to inform the board of the company’s fee collection services.

The city entered into an agreement in 2011 with AMS, which provides past-due criminal fee collection services for municipalities, Sivira said.

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The court basically turns over files for cases in which the defendant has not paid fines, and AMS begins the collection process.

AMS adds 25 percent of the total amount to the fine, and when the fine is paid, AMS keeps the 25 percent as its fee, meaning the service is cost-free to the city, Sivira said.

After the city approved the agreement in 2011, Sivira met with the municipal court clerk to initiate the process of getting case files from the court.

Sivira alleges Municipal Court Judge Jim Blough halted the process, saying the court was not going to hand over any files to AMS.

“I’m not sure why y’all won’t use my service, since it is a free service to you,” Sivira said.

Sivira said AMS collects overdue finds for approximately 100 cities in Mississippi.

As examples, she said, AMS collected $72,000 for Gulfport, $29,000 for Vicksburg and $35,000 for Greenville last year.

Sivira informed the board that according to a state law that went into effect in June 2014, cities utilizing services of companies such as AMS are eligible to receive “free money” from the Department of Revenue based on the number of misdemeanor ticket fines collected. Sivira said her calculations indicate from September 2014 to August 2015, the city might have received approximately $4,600 from the state’s court collections fund.

That money could be used for court personnel salaries, equipment, facility maintenance and other costs, Sivira said.

Alderman Dan Dillard said that meant requested upgrades at municipal court from Blough could be funded if the city utilized the services of AMS.

Dillard said he was not sure how a department head could decide not to participate in an agreement the board of aldermen, the city’s governing body, had approved.

Arceneaux-Mathis said, in an effort to be “politically correct,” perhaps Blough did not realize the money the court was passing up by not using the service.

Sivira said the court is in complete control of the cases that are turned over to AMS. Gulfport, she said, turned over all of its delinquent collections, but that decision would be up to the city.

If at any time, a case changes or the judge ordered jail time or a fine was paid to the city, all that was necessary for AMS to stop working the case is an email, Sivira said.

The board did not take formal action on the matter but said it would reach out to Blough to discuss the agreement.

In other news from the meeting:

-The board recognized its three appointees to the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees — Thelma Newsome, Benny Wright and Amos James — who the board had requested attend Tuesday’s meeting during the last aldermen meeting.

Since that request, city, school district and county officials met last week with the executive director of the Mississippi School Board Association to clarify the laws under which the school district and school board operate.

Aldermen Dan Dillard and Mark Fortenbery attended the meeting and said Tuesday they received valuable information from the meeting.

Newsome expressed apprehension about speaking about district business with two other school board members present because that constituted a quorum. Newsome was unclear on whether it would be allowable under the open meetings law for the board members to discuss district business without having a properly advertised school board meeting.

The aldermen and City Attorney Hyde Carby agreed, and Carby suggested the legal matter be explored and a more formal meeting set up at a later time.

The school board members offered their appreciation to the aldermen for their appointments. Wright noted recent accomplishments by the district, and said personnel changes in the district were necessary to affect the positive changes in student performance.

-The board authorized Carby to enter into lease negotiations with the Natchez Festival of Music for the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center.

-The board of aldermen formally accepted approximately $150,000 in donations from various companies and individuals for the Natchez Tricentennial.

-The board approved the payment of a little more than $1,000 for the repainting of the mural at the dock Under-the-Hill.

-The board recognized members of Boy Scout Troop 168 who attended the meeting to observe local government to receive their citizenship in the community merit badges.