GALVESTON COUNTY $56 MILLION BEHIND ON COURT COLLECTIONS
State audit reveals former director of justice administration grossly mismanaged collections, cost county taxpayers tens of millions of dollars
An audit released Tuesday by the Texas Office of Court Administration shows Galveston County failed to comply with state law requirements for its Collection Improvement Program, resulting in over $56 million in uncollected funds.
The county’s program, which is intended to reduce uncollected fines and fees, has functioned so badly since its creation that uncollected accounts increased by tens of millions of dollars.
In 2005, Galveston County Commissioners Court ordered former director of justice administration, Bonita “Bonnie” Quiroga, to design, implement and manage Galveston County’s Collection Improvement Program. From the beginning of the program in 2005 until her employment with the county was terminated in 2014, Quiroga was in charge of the collections program.
According to county records, before Quiroga established the county’s collections program, delinquent payment plans were behind by about $10 million in all courts. Under Quiroga’s management, that total increased by a whopping $46 million in less than a decade.
The audit report also states that the department under Quiroga’s watch was “responsible for monitoring the court collection process for the JP offices.” The audit concluded that “all cases tested failed this component, indicating this is a countywide issue.”
Total outstanding collections for county, district and justice courts in Galveston County are over $56 million; $36 million of that total belongs to justice courts alone.
By comparison, adjacent Brazoria County, which has a larger population than Galveston County, only has about $7 million in outstanding justice court collections.
Michael Siwierka, a partner in the law firm of Perdue, Brandon, Fielder, Collins & Mott, LLP, which was recently hired to assist with the county’s fines and fees collections, confirmed the scale of the problem.
“We also represent Brazoria County, they have a competent county collections program,” Siwierka said. “Galveston County’s program seems to have been poorly run for quite some time. Evidence of this is the large amount of money that is outstanding. Not enforcing collections against offenders is unfair to the taxpayers of Galveston County, as well as the people who pay their fines timely.”
Last July, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry fired Bonnie Quiroga, citing poor work performance, including failure to properly manage justice court collections, insubordination and absence from work. Quiroga denied those claims and has filed a wrongful termination suit against the county.
Galveston County Pct. 4 Commissioner Ken Clark said Tuesday’s audit report confirms the poor job performance of Quiroga during her time at the county and some of the reasons for her termination.
“Quiroga cost the taxpayers over $50 million. Those are the audited facts,” Commissioner Clark said. “Judge Cox’s radical actions in trying to put Bonnie Quiroga back in charge goes to show how much he cares about his personal agenda over that of the taxpayers and voters he swore an oath to serve.”
Court costs, fees and fines offset the county’s costs in operating the courts, county clerk, district clerk and other offices. The non-collection of these fines and fees has caused Galveston County to assess and collect millions of dollars in additional property taxes to cover operating expenses.
Commissioners Court must now take steps to clean up a decade of fiscal mismanagement of county collections. On Tuesday, Aug. 4, commissioners will consider implementing a new program to streamline collection efforts through automated phone calls and mail notifications.
The county has six months to bring the program into compliance before it faces potential fines by the state that could directly take over $1 million a year out of the county’s operating budget.
“We’re going to get it fixed, we have to” Clark said. “But our county’s elected judges need to be part of the solution, not be part of the problem. They need to stand up for the taxpayers and push back against Judge Cox’s bullying tactics."
Collection Improvement Program inception:
In 2005, the Texas Legislature passed S.B. 1863 mandating commissioners courts in counties with populations over 50,000 create a Collection Improvement Program to increase the collection of court costs, fees and fines imposed in a criminal case. The law required creation of a centralized collection process to improve collection rates and increase revenue to both the state and local governments. Such revenue offsets property taxes that otherwise pay for county and state operating expenses.