Wednesday, March 27, 2013
It’s been close to 10 years since Berkeley County Chief Magistrate Ava Bryant Ayers implemented a new way to collect funds owed by convicts: delinquent debtors were told that if they do not pay their court fines and fees, the money would come out of their state income tax refund.
According to Ayers, who works with the S.C. Department of Revenue to collect funds for Berkeley County, the system works so well that she would like to see it started on a federal level.
The magistrate is puzzled that the system has not become a federal law. In the past there has been bipartisan support for a federal bill of this sort, but it has failed to become a law each time.
Ayers said the federal government already has programs in place to collect unpaid child support and other debts, so it should be easy to add a federal tax refund intercept program similar to the one she uses.
As chief magistrate, Ayers functions as a judge and an administrator. She makes it clear her comments regarding the debt setoff program are strictly from an administrative standpoint, not judicial.
Ayers brought the idea of a debt setoff program to Berkeley County Council in 2003. By August of that year the initial program was in place. Ayers and her part-time assistant began sending out letters to debtors and received $15,000 in the first two weeks, she said.
While there is no exact figure for how much has been collected by Berkeley County in the past 10 years, Ayers says it is at least tens of thousands of dollars.
Between Jan. 1 and March 7 of this year $41,057 has been garnished by the Berkeley County debt setoff, according to data presented by Ayers.
Itemized individual payments received this year have ranged anywhere from $33 to more than $7,000.
“Regular letters is where we get most of our money,” she said. “When I send out those letters the phones start ringing off the hook.”
Nearly 6,000 letters have been sent this year. For a letter to be sent that means debtors have ignored their bond warrant and have had their driver’s license suspended.
“We are only ever going to garnish your taxes after you’ve been given the opportunity to pay off your debt,” she said.
One problem with only having this system in place locally is if a debtor moves to a different state SCDOR can no longer collected the debt, according to Ayers.
With a federal program debtors would have to pay fines out of their federal tax returns – which are usually larger – and could not escape the debt setoff by moving to another state, according to Ayers.
“Not all counties have this,” she said. “We built a database from the ground up. This has been a blessing. It is work, but it’s well worth it when you see what we collect.”
If a debt is greater than the state tax return the debt will be taken out of the tax return each year until it is paid off.
People give Ayers countless excuses for not paying up … such as they forgot, ignored the debt, or thought that after years it had been written off, which never happens, she said.
“We normally give people scheduled time payments,” she said. “There is ample opportunity to pay this. You have a chance for due process. It’s when you ignore everything that you go into debt setoff.”
Despite the effectiveness of the debt setoff system, there is still money that the county will never receive.
The system benefits the county and the defendant, Ayers said. “A lot of people are just glad it’s paid off,” she said. “No one has to be arrested. It doesn’t tie up law enforcement. This is common sense business 101 to me. It’s practical and it works.”
Ayers said she has discussed the program with Senators Paul Campbell and Larry Grooms, who have given their support. She said all the members of local government and other citizens she’s spoken to about debt setoff would welcome passing a federal law that does the same as the system in place for Berkeley County.