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More than $2 million owed in municipal court fines

If Sunnyside Municipal Court were to collect the more than $2 million in fines it is owed, only a small portion of that could benefit the community.

According to Sunnyside Municipal Court Administrator Debbie Mendoza, only about 4 percent of the fines assessed by the local court stay in Sunnyside.

"There's not $2 million out there that Sunnyside could do with whatever they want," said Mendoza.

According to Mendoza, there are $1,902,634 in accounts receivable, which are fines that are levied in court that have not been paid. The court is currently collecting $680,032 in time pay fines, said Mendoza.

More than $714,000 in unbilled fines have not yet been sent out to those who have received traffic tickets and other infractions, said Mendoza.

"Those are tickets that are just sitting there that haven't gone to court and are waiting to be billed and paid," she explained.

For those who haven't paid their fines or appeared in court as instructed, the penalty is stiff. A failure to appear will affect the renewal of a driver's license, said Mendoza.

"If they have a failure to appear on their record they can't get their licensed renewed until it's paid," she explained.

According to Assistant City Manager/City Attorney Mark Kunkler, 90 percent of the penalty imposed by the courts is tacked on top of the penalty. The 90 percent is set aside for the state before Sunnyside even gets its cut.

"How we've handled it is to impose the penalty, plus the 90 percent for the state," said Kunkler.

Additional fees for court costs and attorney's fees are tacked onto the penalty and the 90 percent.

"Our costs are not included in the fines and 90 percent assessment. It really starts to add up," said Kunkler.

Of the base fine charged of someone found guilty by the municipal court system, 53 percent of the fine goes to the state. An additional 32 percent is sent to the state for the Public Safety Education Assessment, said Mendoza. About 11 percent is paid into the crime victims fund, and the rest, or about 4 percent, goes to the city.

"That's why we charge the additional 90 percent," said Mendoza.

If someone was ordered to pay $100, only about $4 of the fine assessed, outside of court costs, would be put in city coffers.

Even with more than $2 million to be collected, Mendoza said the Sunnyside Municipal Court has a better rate of collection than some courts of the same size or larger.

"Per case we're collecting better than some," she said.

Part of the reason for the better than average collection rate is the tracking of the court payments by one of the clerks in the office, who monitors if people are behind in their payments.

"The fines being assessed are a good amount to pay," Mendoza added. "If you force someone to pay more than they can afford they won't, they'll just ignore you."

Mendoza said over the past four years there has been an increase in the number of cases seen at Sunnyside Municipal Court, which has increased the work load.

In 2000, there were 2,615 total cases in Sunnyside Municipal Court. The year 2001 saw 3,208 cases, 2002 had 3,331 cases and, through November of this year, there have been 3,950 cases.

Municipal court has been averaging 329 cases a month. Mendoza said cases are heard Tuesday during the day and in night court sessions on Tuesday nights to help accommodate those who work.

. Melissa Browning can be contacted at (509) 837-4500, or e-mail mbrowning@eaglenewspapers.com

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