|Polk County Enterprise - Local News
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Constables going after $2M in unpaid fines
BY VALERIE REDDELL
LIVINGSTON — After several months of wrangling a decision for an arson investigator in Polk County, Jay Barbee, who has handled the dual roles of fire marshal and environmental enforcement officer submitted a letter stating his intent to retire effective Oct. 31 at Tuesday's session of Commissioners Court. The court directed that the position be posted immediately and accept qualified applicants for arson investigator and environmental enforcement officer. "We accept your letter of resignation with gratitude for your service to the county," County Judge John Thompson told Barbee. The court also voted unanimously to extend the constable warrant service program with guidelines and reporting requirements in an effort to collect $2 million in unpaid fines in the county's four Justice of the Peace courts. Thompson read a status report on the current number of warrants on cases that have not yet been turned over to a collection agency. JP courts alone have about 5,500 warrants with fines totaling about $2 million, Thompson said. "I suggest we include the other two JP Courts in the program and have those constables attempt to collect these fines," Thompson said. "There are only two constitutionally mandated duties for the constable: serve as the bailiff for the JP court and serve warrants. In the event those are not served, there are recourses up to and including removal from office. The one-year trial program will pay constables $10,000 to initiate contact with violators and encourage them to make arrangements with the staff in each JP court to settle the fines. Commissioners asked about the reporting requirements mentioned in the agenda item. "If they served the warrant, isn't there a record of that?" Pct. 3 Commissioner Milt Purvis said. Pct. 1 Constable Scott Hughes responded that the will of his judge had been to have the violator make arrangements to pay, not to fill the court with Class C violators. Other concerns expressed were constables not having secretaries and the additional reporting requirements would create additional work for the volunteers, who often perform the task in exchange for the office carrying their commission. Pct. 4 Commissioner Tommy Overstreet explained that his constable often talks with someone at the residence and explains that the violator needs to get the warrant taken care of to avoid going to jail. "Sometimes he goes to the residence three or four times, then they come in," Overstreet said. "Right now, whether we get credit for it depends on whether the violator who shows up to pay the fine tells the clerk that a constable came by," Hughes said. "In the system, the warrant can be cleared by the sheriff's office, the JP's office — because they send out letters too — or the constable's office." "If we were able to collect on all the outstanding warrants, we would have had enough money to balance our budget without raising taxes," Thompson said after Tuesday's meeting. Hughes asked the court to postpone discussion on a truancy officer, which was listed as an addendum to Tuesday's agenda. "I'll come back and present that to you at a later time after consulting with my commissioner," Hughes said. Commissioners unanimously approved a ban on outdoor burning in all unincorporated areas of the county effectively immediately after Tuesday's meeting. Emergency Management Coordinator Larry Pitts said despite the recent light showers, the average drought index for Polk County is climbing. "It's 681 and I've had emails with the National Weather Service and things don't look good," Pitts said. The chiefs of the fire departments in all four corners of the county believe it's time for a ban. San Jacinto County pulled the plug a month ago. Angelina County is quite a bit worse off than we are." As a final action, commissioners approved advertising for bids for three packet of Ike Round 2.2 Disaster Assistance programs that will fund roads, bridges and drainage projects.