Butler County finance director talks about debt-free plan for the next county budget.

Butler County cities and courts are owed millions. Here’s how they collect.

Trenton is the latest jurisdiction to sign up with a program offered by Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, which collected $11 million statewide last year for local governments and courts. The office collects income tax and EMS bills for local governments and court fines and fees.

Finance Director Mike Engel said the city already uses am agency to collect income taxes, but the city wants to see “which has the best track record.” Plus he said the attorney general’s 10 percent fee, which is paid by the people who owe, was attractive. 

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Trenton estimates taxes for those who don’t file, and officials send bills. In the past five years, the city has turned almost $1.2 million over for collections, and 90 percent of was were estimates. The city has recouped about $6,000 per year.

“That’s part of the reason we wanted to explore the AG’s office offer, because we wanted to see how well they do,” Engel said. “And introduce some competition into the process and see if that helps out.”

Dave O’Neil, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the collection rate is about 29 percent, an industry norm.

Hamilton, the county’s largest jurisdiction, has sent $5 million in delinquent income tax bills to the state since 2015. The AG’s office was able to collect $1.28 million, leaving $3.8 million unpaid. The city collected a total of $105 million in that period.

“The city uses the Attorney General’s Office after a series of delinquency letters have been sent out including a subpoena to come into the Hamilton Tax Office on a specific date and time,” Finance Director Dave Jones said.

The Attorney General’s Office has the ability to withhold state income tax refunds and funnel them to the city. The city considers all tax delinquencies a big problem no matter how large or small they are.”

The city also sent $1.5 million in delinquent emergency medical bills to Columbus for collection and recouped $173,145.

The state can tap into income tax refunds and gambling winnings to collect arrears. The outstanding bills must be $100 or more.

Middletown signed a contract with Yost’s office in November 2017 but has not used it for collections. Under its old collection agency, the city sent 1,790 accounts totalling $751,572 and received $127,292. Finance Director Jake Burton said they also signed up with another collection agency last fall.

“We signed a contract with the AG so that we have the option to use them. If we’ve exhausted all other options, then we may send an account to the AG to collect if that person were to win the lottery or receive a state income tax refund,” Burton said. “We have used a process server and Middletown Municipal Court in order to collect on past due accounts with success.”

The city of Oxford began contracting with Yost’s office in 2017, sending 539 delinquent EMS bills totalling $331,334. Of that, $91,331 was recovered.

Fire Chief John Detherage said officials “soft bill” their residents like most jurisdictions, meaning they don’t try to collect bills that are over what insurance pays. Detherage said most of their calls are from non-residents.

“They’re those eight-month people that are here,” he said. “And we found that those people don’t turn the information into their insurance companies because they might not want the holder of the policy to find out.”

The courts also find themselves with many unpaid fines and fees. Since 2012, the Hamilton Municipal Court has ordered around $7.5 million in court costs and fees and collected around $3.2 million, leaving $4.3 million outstanding. Court Clerk Michelle Deaton said when the AG’s office first introduced the program there was waiting list so the court didn’t sign up. Since that time she said she has talked to others who use the service and “the returns weren’t what everybody thought they would be.”

Plus, she said the demographics of the people that come to the court are not conducive to successful collection. In criminal cases the judge will waive jail time and there are other inducements to pay like driver’s license suspensions, payment plans and “warrant block.”

“I don’t think for us it would really be worth it,” she said adding “Most of our defendants are indigent.”

The Butler County Common Pleas Court has a total of $5.1 million in outstanding fines and fees for closed cases in the criminal division and $120,400 for civil cases, dating back to 2014. Finance Director Lucinda Gentry said the court doesn’t send criminals to collection because Yost’s rules say the debtors can’t be incarcerated.

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The clerk’s office has sent $56,677 in civil fees and fines to the attorney general and recouped $21,665. Gentry said the $100 stipulation and the fact she can’t send foreclosures limits the number of cases she can send for collection.

Middletown Municipal Court has been sending bills to the attorney general since 2017. During that time the judge ordered $13.5 million in fees and fines, the court collected $3.8 million, has $9.7 million outstanding and Yost’s office recovered $59,436.

Linda Lovelace, court administrator for the Butler County Area Courts said they use a collection agency and the courts’ delinquent fines total $3.4 million dating back to 1993.

The other large jurisdictions in the county, Fairfield, Monroe and Fairfield, Liberty, Ross and West Chester townships do not employ collection services. Townships can’t collect income tax and in most if not all cases jurisdictions use third party vendors for EMS billing.

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