Municipal Court discusses unpaid fines, second judge, additional court space

Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad updated City Commissioners on court operations during their March 7 work session pertaining to collections, the second judge and additional court space.

Bolstad told commissioners he’s considering using a collections agency to recoup unpaid court fines, which could also reduce the number of warrants issued for failure to pay those fines.

Bolstad said they have about 2,700 failure to pay warrants currently issues, which takes a lot of energy from the court, police department and dispatchers to address.

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He said using the collections agency is one option that could alleviate some of that pressure.

Margaret Parson of Collection Bureau Services out of Missoula told commissioners that the city has about $2 million in unpaid fines currently.

She said by statute, the agency would add a 25 percent fee to the amount due.

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As an example, she said if a person owed $100 in court fines, the collections agency would add a $25 fee that they keep.

If a person owed $100 and only sent $50, Parson said they’d split that with the court and take further action to recoup the remaining balance.

Morgan Medvec, Municipal Court supervisor, said that if they sent accounts to collections, staff wouldn’t deal with those at the court window, reducing that staff time and the number of people being arrested on failure to pay warrants.

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She said the court would have to send the information through their court records system, which would be an initial $10,000 and then $1,000 annually.

Medvec said the court could cover that cost through the vacancy savings of not having a second judge this year.

Bolstad said that higher courts are cracking down on jailing people for failure to pay fines.

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He said that those who have failure to pay warrants often end up sitting it out in the jail for about $115 per day. In that case, the city doesn’t generate revenue, it cost the taxpayer for the inmate and the 911 dispatchers have to enter and track the warrants, as does the Great Falls Police Department.

Bolstad said the city pulled the advertisement for the second municipal judge since a local attorney challenged the process.

Now the city will wait until the regular election in November to fill that position, created by a charter amendment approved by voters in November 2022.

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Bolstad said he’ll “be swimming until then,” in the current case load.

On Feb. 8, the city posted the advertisement for the second municipal judge with a plan for the City Commission to appoint a judge to fill the newly created seat until the election.

That had been the city’s publicly discussed plan for months.

Within an hour of announcing that the city was accepting applications for the position, Cayle Halberg, a local attorney, emailed commissioners challenging that process, arguing that municipal judges must be elected and can only be appointed to a new vacancy, not a newly created position, under state law, according to city records.

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City officials opted to halt the process and wait for the election rather than risk a legal challenge and any cases handled by the second judge being invalidated if the city were to lose that challenge.

There have also been discussions about turning the Missouri Room in the Civic Center into court space and moving court operations out of the building’s basement.

The room was discussed as an option in 2018 and went nowhere. Staff brought it up again last year during discussions about using ARPA funds to purchase new space.

City Manager Greg Doyon said in December that the city had retained an architect to consider remodeling the basement for court space.

Bolstad told commissioners during the March 7 work session that he looked at the court space in the U.S. Post Office on 1st Avenue North, but it was determined they couldn’t use APRA funds for the space and it would split staff on two different floors. The space is currently in use by the district court for veterans court.

Bolstad said he would recommend using the Missouri Room for court space because it’s beautiful and “has the dignity for a court.”

Members of the Mansfield Advisory Board sent a letter to city commissioners this week expressing their opposition to using the Missouri Room, which is a large meeting room that’s often used for weddings, special events and community meetings.

In their letter, the Mansfield board wrote, “it would be a small tragedy to destroy the ballroom ambiance of the nicest room in the Civic Center with its high ceilings, historic light fixtures and wooden dance floor, not to mention the rooms’ versatility,” and asked commissioners to consider other options as “once this local historic treasure is lost, it is unlikely to ever be recovered.”

Carl Donovan, Mansfield board chair, said that the city is always concerned about the Mansfield needing to generate more revenue to support itself and that taking away the Missouri Room would be a blow to their revenue generating capability.

The board said in their letter, that room rental from the Missouri Room and adjoining Rainbow Room, which is a small meeting room, generates enough revenue for a part-time employee for Mansfield operations.

Bolstad said that the court interfaces with a wide cross section of people and “I can’t think of a better community use. It is not a money maker, it’s a service” provided to the citizens.

There have been no formal proposals or recommendations regarding additional court space yet from city staff.