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County delays criminal collections

| Monday, Jan. 14, 2002, 12:00 p.m.

A plan to hire three private-collection agencies to track down former criminal defendants who have failed to pay $90 million to $110 million in court costs, fines and victims' restitution has been delayed at least until the end of the month.

Allegheny County Clerk of Courts George F. Matta II said he had hoped to have the agencies working on delinquent cases by last September but couldn't enter new contracts in the middle of a budget year. Instead, he had to wait until the beginning of 2002. Matta said he also failed to get three additional office employees to work on collections, although the set-up had been written into the county's 2002 budget.

The delay has kept him from reaching a self-imposed goal of collecting at least half of the money owed, Matta said.

County Manager Bob Webb said Matta's office was treated like other departments and row offices that operate under "budget circumstances," which didn't permit appropriation increases this year compared to 2001.

"If he wants to engage in initiatives, it's up to him to extend his personnel funds," said Webb, who suggested that when current employees leave, their replacements be assigned to collections.

Webb said the clerk of courts office has had "a significant" increase in personnel since the end of 1999. When Matta came into office in 2000, the office had 45 employees. The number was 53 by Sept. 22 last year.

"We are all operating under a tight budget. He is no exception," said Webb. "To the extent that he is interested in engaging in initiatives, they have to be consistent with the budget he has."

Matta said his office first had to determine which debts were collectible and which were not either because a defendant had died or was in prison. There must be a "long- term attack" to collecting the back debt, Matta said, as well as new policies established so that "we don't allow it to go delinquent again."

Three firms — Keystone Municipal Collections of White Oak; Jordan Tax Service of Bethel Park and Credit Management Co. of Pittsburgh — are expected to be signed to contracts by the end of the month , Matta said.

Credit Management had worked with a prior administration. Matta said he insisted that the firms be from Allegheny County and have a good reputation for collections. No bids were necessary because they will be professional contracts, he noted.

Under the law, the companies can add their own 25 percent to the original debt, meaning there is no cost to the county because the criminal pays the collection fee.

Matta said the private agencies will not be permitted to handle any cases in which a defendant is on probation or under government supervision.

Robert Falce, director of collections in Matta's office, said the firms can place liens on a deadbeat's property, vehicle or other assets, and can garnish wages if they fail to respond to notices to set up a payment plan.

Three former Mellon Bank collections agents were hired by Matta in 2000 to write and to phone people who stopped making payments. He said their efforts last year brought in $1,128,274 in late payments.

Matta said that during last year, his office collected $8.64 million in court costs, fines and restitution — a 15 percent increase over the $7.51 million collected the previous year. Matta said people are considered delinquent if their debts are overdue by at least 30 days. Today, hundreds of thousands of people fall in that category.

"There is no way to call all of them," Matta said. "They get a 30-day letter that they're delinquent, then a 60-day letter and a more aggressive 90-day letter."

Falce said the office collects about $35.25 per work day in court costs, fines, fees and restitution, compared to the $29 per day collected in 1999 by the previous administration.

Matta said that when he took office, he found 16 large boxes of returned, undeliverable letters that the county had sent to people who never paid or had stopped paying costs, fines and restitution. His staff is still going through the boxes.

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