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Fort Worth set to close book on 670,000 Municipal Court cases

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- The city will begin closing out 670,000 old cases this spring that have clogged the Municipal Court system for years, allowing it to focus on newer cases with a higher likelihood of collection, officials say.

Offenders in the old cases -- traffic and ordinance violations and the like, the most recent of which were filed in 2005 -- will be subject to one last warrant roundup by law enforcement agencies statewide through mid-March, said Deidra Emerson, Municipal Court services director.

Then Fort Worth will begin closing the cases, Emerson said. Once they are closed, offenders will no longer be subject to arrest on old warrants.

But they still have an incentive to pay their fines.

"The conviction has been reported to the DPS; they have the ability to come in and take care of that case," Emerson said.

Through March 10, the 30 percent outside agency collection fee is being waived.

The old cases, from 1999 to 2005, are among 3.9 million municipal cases the city filed in that period.

To be eligible for closure, the case must be at least 7 years old, must have had no activity for at least two years and must have no legal requirement to remain active. The city last did a formal mass case closing in 1999.

The biggest reason for the cases going inactive is the offenders' lack of effort to pay, Emerson said.

The city has put each of the cases through an outside collection firm at least three times, with the offenders on the hook for the fee, she said. The cases have also been part of periodic warrant roundups.

The city hasn't calculated how much in potential fines it will lose with the cases.

"If there's not a judgment to the case, then there is no value to the case," she said.

In 2005, the court implemented new technology called CourtView. But it lacks a central source for police officer schedule data, meaning it can't align court dates with police schedules. Officers miss court dates, further clogging the system.

The court is considering new technology, such as tools that would allow more cases to be resolved online.

"The easier it is to pay, the more likely they are to pay their tickets," Mayor Betsy Price said Tuesday during a presentation by Emerson.

Councilman Dennis Shingleton told Emerson that she has a chance "to be a hero for the city" by figuring how to increase collections.

"There's a lot of revenue that's not getting through the turnstile here," he said. "There's too much revenue that's not being captured."

Annexation policy

Fort Worth is moving to put off annexation of residential enclaves with 1-acre lots or greater that aren't connected to water and sewer systems and where most residents oppose joining the big city.

City Council members, in a workshop Tuesday afternoon prompted by objections to annexation in some subdivisions, expressed support for a change that would assign "low priority" to annexing such subdivisions. One recent group in far north Fort Worth showed up en masse to protest annexation, and the council put off a vote for several months.

"This means that annexation of such enclaves would be delayed until urban development or adverse impacts are anticipated," the program change reads.

"I've got serious concerns about where we find ourselves right now," Price said in opening the workshop. As she often says, "we can barely say grace over what we have right now. We have to show a reason to be annexing land, and it has to be a solid reason."

Councilman Sal Espino expressed support for the change but worried that homeowners in the affected subdivisions "are still using [Fort Worth] roads. How do we account for the use of city roads?"

CFO's severance pay

The January departure of Fort Worth's chief financial officer, Lena Ellis, spilled over in public Tuesday, with Ellis' requests for a written statement citing reasons for her removal and a public hearing before the council to ask for reconsideration of her severance.

The city made the documents public in conjunction with Ellis' hearing. Ellis did not appear; the documents were entered into the record.

The documents confirmed that City Manager Tom Higgins moved to replace Ellis in January. His letter to Ellis cites several reasons, including "failure to perform effectively as the city's chief financial officer with a broad understanding of the organization and its operations."

Ellis, in a 73-page response to Higgins' letter, filed as part of the public hearing, said Higgins' assessment of her understanding of the organization and objectives "is highly subjective. Of course, I understand the organization and many of its operations."

Ellis said she was always rated as meeting or exceeding the expectations of her job.

Ellis said her severance package is not fair, relative "to others at the executive level" in the city. To see copies of the documents, visit the PoliTex blog at star-telegram.com.

Scott Nishimura,

817-390-7808

Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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