TUPELO • City officials may adopt a new way to collect overdue municipal court fines by seizing part of a debtor’s state tax returns.
The Tupelo City Council convened a work session on Tuesday and municipal court administrators proposed warning individuals in writings that their tax refunds could be taken if they are 60 days past their court payment due date.
“We are trying to basically garnish that (state) income tax (refund),” said Rhonda Cole, the Tupelo Municipal Court clerk.
In its 2019 session, the Mississippi Legislature passed a law allowing these kind of garnishments. This law allows city and county governments to form an agreement with Municipal Intercept Company, which will work with local government and the state’s revenue department to collect fines.
On top of any outstanding debt, a collection fee equal to 25 percent of that outstanding debt will be assessed against a person’s state income tax refund. Once a person receives a written notice of the city’s intent, a person will have 30 days to write to the court to contest the charges.
Currently, city court allows convicted citizens to pay any fines all at once. If a person cannot pay the entire fine at once, they are required to put down a down payment for the fine. Afterward, a person sets up a payment plan with the court for a minimum of $5 per month. If a person cannot afford to pay the minimum monthly payment, the city allows for them to come to a work program that reduces their fines by $100 for each day worked.
“We just can’t get anybody to show up for the work program,” Cole told the council.
However, court administrators said a larger, underlying problem is causing people payment agreement violations and court absences – the jail won’t accept people for simple, misdemeanor charges.
John Knight, the director of the municipal court, told members of the council that the jail problems are now well known throughout the community.
“Honestly, our hands are kind of tied right now, if you don’t mind me saying,” Knight told the elected officials. “The jail is not accepting people with warrants right now. And the people don’t have a fear of going to jail right now, so they stop showing up for court. Our numbers are way down.”
Knight went on to say that because of occupancy issues at the jail, prison leaders often turn away people who have an outstanding warrant for violating a fine payment plan for a convicted misdemeanor offense. He said people in the community know this and believe unless “something really bad happens they can’t take me to jail.”
“We almost have to beg for anybody to go to jail,” Knight said. “And the judges’ hands are tied behind their back.”
At a meeting of the police advisory board last week, advisory members also reported that they have heard concerns from police officers about current practices at the jail.
“The jail seems to really be a frustration right now,” said advisory board member Terry Goin.
The person constitutionally bound to maintain the jail docket and control who is in the jail is Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson. He told the Daily Journal in a statement that he previously allowed any city within the county to use the inmate work center to house non violent inmates that needed to work off fines.
The inmates were housed in a separate facility than inmates convicted of a violent offense. Johnson said this program was used because it allowed people to work off fines and didn’t cost municipalities anything and the county received free labor from the work.
“I was forced to stop housing those inmates at that location due to the municipal courts failing to use that program,” Johnson said. “I now house state inmates at that location to perform those tasks.”
Johnson said the city doesn’t have space at its police headquarters and relies on the county jail to house inmates, which often means limited space at the jail.
“This is due to the limited number of beds, maintenance being done to a housing unit that reduces the use of that area or existing problems that causes me to close a particular part of the faculty,” Johnson said. “With any one of these issues I do have to pick and choose what offenders we hold. This decision is nothing new and has been discussed in length with city and county leaders.”
The jail currently has 202 beds available for inmates. According to the jail’s records, officials at the jail have housed more than 202 inmates at a time in recent weeks. This past week, the number of inmates decreased to around 185 per day.
The Lee County Board of Supervisors is now in the process of hiring a consultant to evaluate the county jail and determine if major repairs are needed to the facility.
The purpose of the city’s involvement with the debt collection program would be to gather more than $1 million in estimated outstanding fines, some of which may be more than 20 years old. However, the court administrators have said the city would almost certainly have to make additional investments to the court for the system to be successful.
Cole and Knight said an additional full-time worker would have to be hired to operate the additional program and the court would need new software to efficiently track the physical address of people to give them a proper written notice of the tax return garnishment.
When Cole was asked if she thought the city could get enough return on the investment, she said it was “possible.” Cole said she did have some reservations about some low-income people who come through the court or people who receive disability benefits. Ward 2 Councilman Lynn Bryan said he didn’t think that was a concern since nearly everyone, regardless of income, files a tax return.
“That’s just an excuse since they’re poor and all of that,” Bryant said. “They did (the crime), and they’re looking for a way to get out of it.”
Bryan made several comments at the meeting that indicated he supported the program. Several other council members said they were willing to at least try the program on a trial basis and evaluate its results after a few years.
Ben Logan, the city’s attorney, told the Daily Journal that Mayor Jason Shelton’s administration believes the program would be another tool to collect fines, but the administration would look at is “as a last resort.”
The council is expected to discuss the issue again at a future council meeting.
William Moore and Caleb Bedillion contributed reporting to this article.