Government & Politics

What’s driving Prairie Village to outsource its court collections?

Prairie Village officials are considering hiring a private collections agency to track down unpaid court fines, reducing the need for the municipal court to issue arrest warrants.

The City Council on Tuesday reviewed an agreement with Topeka-based Collection Bureau of Kansas Inc., or CBK, to take over the job. In return, the company would receive 30-percent of all amounts collected.

Court Administrator Deana Scott told council members that defendants owe the municipal court system $675,000 in unpaid court fees and fines.

Currently, municipal court officials have few options to get a defendant to appear in court for an unpaid fine other than issuing a warrant, which can lead to additional costs or even jail time, Scott said.

That approach has attracted scrutiny across the country following a federal Justice Department investigation from 2015 of Ferguson, Mo., which found that many residents faced a continuous cycle of expanding costs because they couldn’t afford sometimes minor court fines.

The Kansas Supreme Court last September created an ad hoc committee to review how municipal courts in the state handle fines and fees and award bond for defendants awaiting trial and then suggest best practices.

Municipal Court Judge Karen Torline, who oversees courts in Prairie Village, Shawnee, Roeland Park and Edgerton, is on the committee.

“No one is saying any courts are doing anything wrong,” Scott said. “The state is looking at (it) just to make sure that we’re not infringing debtors prison on anyone.”

Under the contract with CBK, the municipal court would give defendants a certain amount of time to either pay their fines or appear before a judge to request a payment plan or argue for a reduced amount because of their financial situation. After that, the case would be handed to CBK.

Scott said the court chose CBK without putting the contract out for bid. She said the company already serves dozens of state, county and municipal courts across Kansas and was one of the few companies that can collect money from defendants directly and use the state’s Debt Setoff program.

That program allows the Kansas Department of Administration to collect outstanding debt against individuals and companies through payments from the state, such as tax refunds or lottery awards.

Several council members said they favored the plan because it would help low-income defendants avoid jail and additional expenses. But a few said they had been the mistaken targets of collections efforts in the past and worried about CBK using similar strong-arm tactics.

“I would want to know that this was being done in a respectful manner and a professional manner and that people weren’t feeling harassed and bullied,” Mayor Laura Wassmer said.

Chad Hollins, vice president of sales for CBK, said the company recorded all collections calls and would work closely with court officials to address any complaints in how it handled a case.

“We are in it for the long run,” Hollins said.

The council voted unanimously to move the agreement to the first meeting in February for a final vote.

In other business, the council voted unanimously for an engineering study by Water Resources Solutions that would look for ways to deal with flooding along Brush Creek at 68th Street and Mission Road.

That area saw extensive street flooding and residential basement flooding last summer during severe thunderstorms. Johnson County’s Stormwater Management Advisory Council will pay 75 percent of the study’s $36,830 cost, with Prairie Village paying $9,207.

The council is also now livestreams its meetings online. Viewers can watch a live feed of the meetings at the city’s website (http://pvkansas.com/city-government/city-council-meeting-streaming), on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/CityofPrairieVillage/) or via YouTube (http://bit.ly/2Dnmbfi).

David Twiddy: dtwiddy913@gmail.com

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