Despite millions in unpaid court fees Sullivan Co. court official says collection rate is good

TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL)- Despite fact that some area court systems are owed millions of dollars in unpaid fees at least one county said it is doing a good job of collecting outstanding balances.

News Channel 11 started looking into unpaid court fees while investigating civil judgments and found not only is it difficult for plaintiffs to recover money they’re owed, but court systems often find themselves in the same position.

Washington and Sullivan counties are each owed roughly 40 million dollars in fees, fines, restitution and judgments for the last three fiscal years. Court records show Sullivan County has only collected about 25 percent of the balance for FY 2014-2015. Sullivan County Circuit Court Clerk Tommy Kerns said there are several reasons why money goes uncollected.

Kerns said, “Probably the largest reason, especially in circuit criminal, is the person’s in prison and you can’t make payments if you have no money… If you get someone in prison and they’ve got a fines and costs, which is not unusual to have over $100,000 in fines and costs, they’re not making any payments on them, except very minimal.”

Kerns said some of the uncollected money would go to plaintiffs that have been awarded money in cases while the rest of it would go to state and local offices, including paying for programs within the Sullivan County Justice Center. Kerns said his department works very closely with its district attorney general’s office to collect money. Kerns said the DA’s office can find and seize a person’s assets and put together pay agreements. “All of the effort that we do in collecting this is for the citizens of Sullivan County,” Kerns said. “There [are] a lot of programs and things that we do that the… offenders pay for what we do. For example, the security programs we have in all of our buildings.”

Fortunately, Kerns said his department collects enough money to operate, despite millions of dollars of fees going unpaid. “We’re doing everything possible to collect these fees and I am happy with what we’re doing… [In Fiscal Year] 2011-2012, the national standard for collecting money in circuit court was 9 percent. We’re 20 some percent ahead of that,” Kerns said.

News Channel 11 tried to check Carter County court system’s collection rates, but an official said the county’s software could not generate how much the court system is owed; only how much it has received. A court official said In FY 2014-2015 Carter County collected about $2.6 million. Sullivan and Washington counties each collected roughly $4 million during the same time period.

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