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2013-02-14

$166K in limbo due to unserved, uncollected city warrants

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Gathering their fiscal wits about them, Bandera City Council will attempt to recoup a potential loss of over $166,000 to the city, resulting from unserved and uncollected warrants dating from 2006, said Administrator Mike Cardenas during a meeting on Thursday, Feb. 7.

When the police department was reduced in force in September 2011, purportedly "stacks and stacks" of unserved warrants were discovered in the offices of both the municipal court and law enforcement. After a thorough review, warrants that appeared to be problematic were invalidated.

The 400 warrants that remained starting from 2006 totaled $156,350.

On a brighter note, only 32 warrants have remained uncollected from the last 12 months, according to Cardenas. City Marshal Charlie Hicks took over the municipal law enforcement department in June 2012.
To initiate the so-named "Warrant Roundup," council approved 10 additional hours per week for Municipal Clerk Rebecca Hanna. The extra hours allow her to identify the deadbeats, contact them and eventually receive and record their payments. "We'll try this for six months and bring it back to council," Cardenas said. "If it doesn't work, we can discontinue it at that time." Hanna's hours would add up to an extra 250 during that period.

According to Cardenas, an earlier collection program contracted to an outside agency ultimately proved unsuccessful. "The collections didn't go well and the company got 30 percent of the gross," he said.

Concurring, Hicks added, "When you have to give an agency 30 percent, that doesn't leave much for the city."

In summer 2010, city officials contracted with the San Antonio law firm of Linebarger, Goggan, Blair & Sampson, LLP, to recoup some of the then more than $200,000 in outstanding fines, court costs and fees.

No information was offered during the meeting regarding the amount of money the firm actually recouped.

Lobbying for the local Warrant Roundup, Cardenas said, "I would hate to see the warrants just go away. We have to try to collect on them."

Apparently Hanna has proved adept at the job of tracking down those who owe money to the city. According to Municipal Judge Dawn Wright, Hanna does an exemplary job with her collections duties. "She has already collected $10,000 more than we expected in the budget," Wright told council.

A citizen queried as to whether it was worth the time and expense to attempt to collect on a warrant from someone "who might never come back to Bandera."

Answering in the affirmative, Hanna said, "We frequently collect on warrants issued to out-of-towners - even if they don't plan to visit here again. Once we contact them, they're happy to take care of it."

Concurring, Councilman Brandi Morgan said, "It's something that's always hanging over them."

According to Hicks, all city warrants are now sent to the Bandera County Emergency Dispatch to be recorded in their in-house computer system. "If a driver is stopped in Bandera County, they are identified to the dispatchers, who automatically check for local warrants," Hicks said. "If they find one, then the subject will be arrested and placed into jail until the fines are paid." He emphasized that this is only a local check and law enforcement outside Bandera County would not know that they exist. Previously, however, municipal warrants were supposedly not routinely turned over to emergency dispatch.

"There's no statute of limitations on warrants," Wright also noted.
Hicks said that while serving as a police chief in the City of Daisetta in East Texas, he and the municipal court had established a successful warrant collection program that utilized payment plans - something Hanna also expects to implement. "I would love to get (these warrants) cleaned out," Hicks said. "I have every expectation that this program will also work in Bandera."

After council approved extra hours for Hanna, Cardenas expressed confidence in both Wright and Hanna, saying, "After six months, we'll report back to council and decide which direction we would like to take."

"This Warrant Roundup is an attempt to convey to the public how serious we are about cleaning up these outstanding warrants," Hicks said. "We want to will give everyone every opportunity to comply."

Ironically, there was no outcry from those attending last week's city council meeting about the more than $166,000 in outstanding warrants. However, according to Mayor Don Clark, citizens had expressed concerns that the city council meetings, i.e., two regular meetings per month, "were costing the taxpayers too much money."

Councilman Maggie Schumacher pointed out that only times an unusual number of meetings had occurred was leading up to the police department's reduction in force and during budget hearings - the latter being necessary for governmental transparency.

Clark's attempt to reduce meetings to one per month ultimately failed by a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Pro Tem John Hegemier and Councilman Jim Hannah voting for the change. For the record, before taxes, each councilman receives a stipend of $10 per meeting.