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County goes after those who owe fines

The long arm of county law enforcement has grown.

By about 933 miles.

That's the distance between Brooksville and Austin, Texas, home to the innocuously named Municipal Services Bureau. The company, which employs 125 people, specializes in "revenue recovery."

Put another way, MSB is a collection agency. They track down those who have failed to pay various fines to local governments and persuade the delinquent to make good on their debts.

MSB began chasing unpaid ambulance service fees for the county last year, but in recent months its responsibilities have expanded. In February, the company began collecting court fines. Next month, MSB will start going after those who have not paid traffic tickets.

"We are not experts" in the art of collection, said Karen Nicolai, clerk of the Circuit Court. "You want to hire the people who are good at this."

Like governments across the country, Hernando County collects only a small portion of the fines it issues every year. In 2000, for example, the county assessed $2.5-million in fines for everything from speeding to code violations to felonies. It has collected only $466,000 so far.

It should be noted that the bulk of what is assessed in any year comes from fines judges levy in felony cases. With convicted felons often imprisoned for their crimes, only a small percentage of such debts are ever paid.

Although the county is obliged to track down those who flout their obligations under the law, there is a point of diminishing returns, Nicolai said. Deputies have better things to do than seek a warrant to arrest somebody wanted for failure to pay a $100 misdemeanor fine, she said, and _ given county resources _ tracking down a code violator who left the area years ago might be an even sillier waste of effort.

State law allows governments to tack an additional charge to unpaid fines and shift collection duties to private companies. In the case of MSB, the company is paid an amount equal to 30 percent of what it collects. Its fee is paid by the delinquent violator, not taxpayers.

Forget the image of the muscled collection agent who counts bone-breaking among his arsenal of persuasion. MSB contracts with some 600 municipalities across the country, about 30 of them in Florida. The company uses powerful databases to track down deadbeats, then goes after them by mail and phone from Austin.

"They nag," Nicolai said. "And for that they get 30 percent."

Company president Thomas Giamboi said considerable effort and time are put into locating those who owe. Then comes the steady rain of phone calls and letters, which Giamboi said increase in frequency and _ in some cases _ severity of tone.

"We let them know that somebody is paying attention to their obligation," he said. "It's all psychological, if you will."

According to Giamboi, low-level offenses such as traffic tickets are easiest to collect on, and the difficulty increases with the severity of the crime.

Both Nicolai and Giamboi said it's not all about the money; it's also important to keep some teeth in the laws that help bind society together.

"Every city and county has a budget shortfall right now," Giamboi said. "These people have made promises . . . they have not kept."

Nicolai said MSB has begun to pull in cash for the county, more than $2,000 since the start of last month. After a year, Nicolai said MSB's performance and its contract with the county will be evaluated.

_ Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.

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