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Hidalgo County residents who owe a Justice of the Peace court fine or fee over 90 days past due will now be denied services and unable to register their motor vehicle until their debt is paid in full, due to the implementation of a new program in the County. The Hidalgo County Scofflaw Program intends to collect outstanding fines and fees by catching “scofflaws” who have skipped out on their obligations.
In 1997, the Texas Legislature approved language in the Texas Transportation Code that allowed County tax assessor-collectors to deny registration of a vehicle if they received information that the registrant owes the County a past due fine or fee. Dubbed the “Scofflaw Program,” the program allows a mechanism for counties to chastise scofflaws, defined as “contemptuous law violators,” as a means of recouping money that is owed. Hidalgo County chose to implement the program using outstanding Justice of the Peace fines and fees, which total approximately $40 million and go back as far as the early nineties.
Hidalgo County’s Scofflaw Program begins the enforcement phase of a project which commenced in 2011, “Operation: Clean Slate,” in which residents could search an online database to determine whether they owed the County. The website also allowed defendants to conveniently settle their debt by paying online. Residents were urged to “clean their slate, before it was too late,” and before further consequences ensued. This phase of the project now adds a stronger enforcement mechanism by which the County can rightfully reclaim outstanding debt.
“The County is trying to be more efficient in its collections, and we took the challenge to help the County in this effort,” said County Tax Assessor-Collector Armando Barrera. “The tax office is already a major revenue source for the County, and this program is one more tool to ensure that everything owed to the County gets paid,” Barrera continued. Paul Villarreal, current Chief of Operations and Barrera’s successor beginning January 2013, added, “We encourage the public to take care of their fines as soon as possible so that we can continue to serve their vehicle registration needs in our office.”
Spearheading the implementation of the JP Collections Initiative along with Barrera and the committee were County Judge Ramon Garcia and Precinct 4 Commissioner Joseph Palacios, who were both pleased with the implementation of the program.
Garcia touted the program as long overdue, and stated he is eager to see an increase in revenues due to this new program. “With the County facing a major budget shortfall this year, recapturing these funds owed to the County will certainly help our financial situation,” remarked Garcia. “This money is owed, and we ask that residents take personal responsibility and settle their obligations as soon as possible,” Garcia continued.Palacios concurred. “It is our fiduciary responsibility as public servants to ensure we are taking advantage of all resources available to effectively and diligently manage our County funds, including collecting what is owed,” he remarked. “Together, we came up with a creative solution to address a very real need, and I applaud the efforts of all who were involved to get this program started,” Palacios continued.
The committee worked closely with all nine Justices of the Peace offices to ensure that standard procedures were in place to successfully implement the program across all offices. If flagged, residents must pay in full online or at a Justice of the Peace court in order to be cleared and allowed to register their vehicle at the tax office.
JP Collections Committee Chair and Budget Office Strategic Planning Director Reynaldo Salazar stated, “Our elected officials asked us to develop and outline possible revenue enhancement strategies, and the committee was able to bridge the gap between brainstorming a conceptual idea and turning that into a deliverable.” Looking toward the future, Salazar continued, “We look forward to enhancing this program in the coming months and partnering with our local municipalities to also assist them in their collection efforts.”
County officials urge the public to check the online database, which can be found at www.hidalgocounty.us, and take care of any outstanding payment prior to making a visit to the tax office. If flagged as a “scofflaw” on the system, registration will be denied until paid in full online or at the Justice of the Peace court.