Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"I think most jurors would be offended at the way this is being handled."

Tough road ahead collecting late tolls

Courts would be overwhelmed, no way to enforce


Chris Willis
KXAN-TV (Austin)
Copyright 2010

More than 150,000 toll violators owe $56.1 million in outstanding tolls and "administrative fees" - but the Texas Department of Transportation is hitting a roadblock, or several, when it comes to collecting them.

To be exact, the amount of outstanding tolls is $3.12 million. But KXAN discovered TXDOT is charging some violators more than 4000 percent in those "administrative fees". And those fees are what push the total amount of money owed to $56.1 million. TXDOT said they're now going to take those violators to court.

"Once the court date is scheduled, we step out of the process, it's in the hands of the court," said Mark E. Tomlinson, TXDOT's director of the Turnpike Authority.

But that's where their troubles begin; those cases are going to cause a major traffic jam in already strained courts, and county officials say they foresee them stalling out.

By law, the toll cases must be heard in a Justice of the Peace court with toll road jurisdiction. And most of those courtrooms hear roughly 9000 cases a year. Imagine the confusion when TXDOT tells the courts in Williamson and Travis counties they’re sending them 150,000 cases.

Local attorney Bill Gammon said right now, TXDOT cannot send any toll violation cases to court. He added the counties have been left in the dark when it comes to how the process will be handled.

"Once people realize this, they're going to have even less respect for the law and less respect for TXDOT and anybody else who tells them they're going to take them to court," he said. "They're going to laugh."

KXAN spoke with the elected officials in Williamson and Travis counties, and they agree with Gammon. Travis County Treasurer Delores Ortega Carter said TXDOT needs to get their ducks in a row before they file any toll violation cases. "They can file all the cases they want, how long they’ll be there we don't know," she said. Carter's colleague in Williamson County, Treasurer Vivian Wood concurs. "I just can’t see our judge and commissioners agreeing to anything even though the statute is there."

County officials said it all boils down to what is called an Interlocal Agreement: A set of rules and guidelines to outline procedures dealing with court costs, collection of tolls and fees, where the money collected goes, payment methods, timeliness and line items.

They said there has got to be an Interlocal Agreement before any cases can be heard in county courtrooms. Ortega-Carter and Wood told KXAN they've been trying to get an agreement with TXDOT since 2006, but have not heard anything from the state agency.

"I don't have anything from the state that tells me…and we don't just send money down to the Comptroller without the state's requirements for identification of those funds," Wood said. Ortega-Carter added: "We need to have a paper trail so that, for auditing purposes, we can see where it’s going. We don't care how the state spends the money, that's their problem. We do care how the county receives that money."

TXDOT is now sending "last chance" letter to toll violators, threatening to take them to court if they do not pay their tolls and "administrative fees."

Tomlinson says one case has already been filed in Williamson County. And Tomlinson admits, they may not get far until they get together with county officials.

"We don’t want any mistakes on our part" he said. "We want to make sure the cases are good and the court processes are respected."

In the meantime, Gammon says 150,000 cases would simply overwhelm the court system, and he adds there’s no way TXDOT can burden the Justice of the Peace Courts with such a heavy case load.

He says if TXDOT does get Interlocal Agreements with Williamson and Travis Counties, and if they insist on charging violators 4000 percent in "administrative fees," violators who do end-up in court should simply request a jury trial.
"I think most jurors would be offended at the way this is being handled," said Gammon.

TXDOT’s Wisconsin-based collection agency is now calling violators at home and sending letters to try and get them to pay their tolls and fees.

But if you ignore the collection agency, there is little they can do. They cannot contact your credit report, they cannot prevent you from renewing your driver's license and they cannot stop you from registering your vehicle with the state.

Taking violators to court could be TXDOT's only option to collect the money. But until an Interlocal Agreement is reached, county officials said those cases will not be heard.

© 2010 KXAN-TV: www.kxan.com

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