Shutdown prompts county cuts to local agencies

By FLOYD INGRAM / THE PRESS REGISTER,

 

The coronavirus shutdown has prompted Coahoma County supervisors to begin cutting all non-statutory required funding as they face the loss of casino tax revenue.

The decision was prompted by the closing of Tunica casinos that were funding the county’s budget to the tune of approximately $103,000 per month. With the casinos forced to close because of mandated coronavirus shutdowns by the state in March, they won’t have April customers and the county will get no casino money next month.

Comptroller Ann Hoskins said the county received its March check for $102,000 around the first of April and May will be the month the money all but stops. Casino revenue for the county is earmarked for county capital improvements, equipment purchases and county road and bridge maintenance.

Board of Supervisors President Johnny Newson said the county is also looking at contracting with a collection agency to go after old fines, past-due taxes and unpaid bills. He asked the board to be ready to vote on that issue at their April 22 meeting.

“We’ve kicked this fines thing down the road for about six months and we’re in a situation now where we are going to have to do something,” said Newson. “If we are going to keep taxes down – our (casino) boat taxes have been cut to zero – we’ve got to look at other sources.”

That prompted the county to look at cutting expenses.

The state mandates the county pay for certain services: road and bridge construction and maintenance, building upkeep, salaries of elected county officials and expenses related to their offices, law enforcement and courts.

The county is annually approached by various groups, non-government agencies and organizations seeking funding.

Supervisors have voted to cut the following dollar amounts on a monthly basis to the following agencies:

• $7,500.00 – Coahoma Economic Development Authority.

• $5,666.66 – North Delta Planning and Development.

• $4,604.17 – Region I Mental Health.

• $2,500.00 – CARES animal shelter

• $1,833.34 – Clarksdale/Coahoma Airport Board.

• $1,666.67 – Boys & Girls Club.

• $1,271.67 – Clarksdale Speech & Hearing.

• $1,250.00 – Coahoma Opportunities.

• $  833.33 – County Health Department.

• $  833.33 – Delta Council.

• $  666.67 - Aaron Henry Community Health.

• $  416.67 – Spring Initiative.

• $  416.67 – Tri-County Workforce Alliance.

• $  333.33 – Northwest Mississippi Museum.

• $  333.33 – Red Cross

• $    83.33 – National Guard.

These cuts total $30,208.17.

The county is owed an estimated $2 million in unpaid fines and half-a-million in unpaid taxes.

Last fall the county initially looked at entering the Mississippi Association of Supervisors (MAS) Debt Setoff Program that would have collected unpaid fines, back-taxes and bills owed the county by intercepting a debtor’s state income tax return.

Since most people have received their tax refunds for this year, that does not seem to be an option now.

The county is looking at hiring Mississippi Court Collections, of Brandon, to go after money owed the county. MCC is a private company that specializes in the collection of delinquent Justice Court fines, personal property taxes, mobile home taxes and solid waste fees.

In December then Board President Paul Pearson made the motion to enter the Debt Setoff Program but it died from lack of a second. Newsom then made the motion for the county not to pursue the issue further and it was seconded by Darrell Washington and supported by Pat Davis. Will Young was absent.

Supervisors implemented a 3-percent across-the-board cut in all departments this fall.

Legislation created last summer authorized counties to collect a debt owed to the county by intercepting a debtor’s state income tax return. Coahoma County Supervisors were told of the new law and program at their September meeting.

The City of Clarksdale voted in October to take part in the program under the auspices of the Mississippi Municipal League. Clarksdale has fines of more than $1.8 million owed the city.

Supervisors did say last fall they wanted to see how it was implemented in other counties and how successful it was there. They agreed the county – tax collector, justice court judges and constables and circuit court judges – need to be more diligent in making sure people pay their fines and pay their taxes.

The program would work like this:

The county would contact the Mississippi Department of Revenue and submit the debt owed for collection. The county, through the Debt Setoff Program Coordinator, would send written notice of the intent to the debtor to garnish part or all of their refund. The debtor is told a 25 percent collection assistance fee will be assessed if they don’t pay immediately.

The debtor would have 30 days to contest the garnishment and receive a hearing in front a justice court judge with appeals made to the county circuit court.

Other counties and cities that have taken part in this program have found the threat of garnishing a tax refund often prompts people who owe fines to go ahead and pay the court.

Using MCC will be a true collection agency that finds debtors, contacts them, collects the debt and keeps a fee for their services. MCC would go through city, county and state courts with garnishments, liens and typical collection agency tools to get the debt paid.

Already, the Mississippi Department of Revenue can garnish state income tax refunds to recover:

• Unpaid child support.

• Federal taxes or fees owed.

• Unpaid student loans (state government loans only).

• Community college unpaid fees or other debts.

Mississippi is one of six states that does not suspend, revoke, or not allow driver's license renewal for failure to pay fines and fees.

The state does allow local Justice Court Judges and Circuit Court Judges to issue bench warrants for failure to pay fines assessed by those courts. Once the bench warrant is issued, and a driver is once again pulled over for a traffic infraction, they can be arrested for failure to pay a fine and carried to jail to await a hearing in front of the judge who issued the bench warrant.

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