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June 16, 2013

McKenzie: ‘Fee waivers hurt department’

GREENVILLE — Dozens of supervision fees waved by Judge Steve Tittle will cost the probation department hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue and affect the department’s ability to supervise probationers, according to Hunt County Community Supervision and Corrections Department (HCCSCD) Director Jim McKenzie.

According to HCCSCD records, 196th District Court Judge Steve Tittle has waived supervision fees in 136 cases between Jan. 5, 2013 and June 1.

Every individual placed on probation is required to pay, as part of their probation, a supervision fee of $60 a month. Those fees, according to revenue projections by fiscal officer Mike Taylor of Rutherford Taylor Company PC, will account for 67 percent of the department’s revenue during the current fiscal year.

According to Article 42.12, Section 19 (a) of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, a judge may waive a supervision fee only if “the judge determines that payment of the fee would cause the defendant a significant financial hardship.”

According to McKenzie, court documents indicate that 79 of the 136 fees waived from Jan. 5 to Jun. 1 were waived for unknown or unauthorized reasons, such as compensation for appearing in court or as a reward for compliance with probation conditions. If the probationers who had their fees waived had served out the full term of their probation, the total amount of fees waived would be $226,471.25, although it is improbable that every probationer would have served his or her full term.

McKenzie said that, if the rate of fee waivers in Judge Tittle’s 196th District Court continue, the department will have to dip significantly into its surplus fund and would have to ask the state to make up the difference, money the department is not guaranteed to get.

“The state funds us based on a formula, and they are not obligated to give us more than what we’re entitled to based on that formula,” McKenzie said. “I have sent a letter to the state on June 1 and asked for special funding in addition to what we will receive for the next fiscal year, which we don’t know yet. Over the past few years, that [regular funding] has been cut.”

McKenzie added that if the department does not receive extra funding to supplement the lost revenue and the department uses all of its surplus account, “we would have no choice but to have a reduction in force.” The loss of funding will also make it more difficult for the department to keep tenured officers and attract new hires, McKenzie said.

Hunt County contributes $25,000 a year to the department, a contribution that McKenzie said has occurred each year for more than 20 years and is used by the department to purchase things they cannot use state funds for, such as office furniture.

While Hunt County is under no obligation to fund the HCCSCD, Hunt County Judge John Horn indicated that the county commissioners court would look at increasing their contribution to HCCSCD during their annual budgeting session.

“The practical decision has to be made, regardless of any particular person’s tomfoolery, that will benefit the safety and the welfare of the general public,” he said. “If there is a price associated with that, if there is an incremental increase in taxes for this specific scenario, then I feel the individual responsible will be held responsible, and the only people that do that are the voting public.”

Tittle said he is following the law by performing probationer reviews.

“The court is required to conduct periodic reviews,” he said. “Those reviews had never been done before in this court. All aspects of probation are considered. I will also say that if someone receives 10 years of probation, and they get their probation revoked two years into probation and they get sent back to prison, that does not mean the court has waived their probation fees for the remaining eight years.”

According to Tittle, he has consistently applied the law when reviewing probation cases.

“Probation fees are regulated by the state and the trial court, whether the court likes the law or not, has to follow the law,” he said. “And the law says that a trial court cannot impose probation fees on someone who is unable to pay them. I have consistently applied the law in each and every case and I have not one time had any objection to anything regarding probation fees in any probationary hearing by the state of Texas, the defense attorney or the probation department.”

Tittle mentioned that the HCCSCD asked for five to 15 percent raises for their staff across the board a few months ago, raises he voted against.

“When I came into office, I set the priorities for when a probationer makes payments,” Tittle said. “My priority has always been that any dollar that they pay toward probation needs to first go to a Hunt County citizen that has been victimized as a result of the crime. Any restitution, whether it’s for a theft or a physical injury, needs to be paid first. Probation fees fall later down the line in the court’s significance, since there is already a half a million dollar surplus account.”

Tittle disagreed with the department’s math and said that his court has waived less than 5 percent of the defendants’ cases that have come through the 196th District Court.

“Obviously that is incorrect,” he said in reference to the $200,000-plus figure. “I’m very grateful that I went to SMU and got a degree in finance; however, you don’t have to have a degree in finance to see that those numbers are fuzzy and don’t add up.”

Tittle added that the county is not obligated to contribute to the department.

“Probation has a $1.2 million budget that is funded almost exclusively from the state,” he said. “The county is not obligated to fund the department at all. In addition to their budget, they have approximately $500,000 in a surplus account that goes virtually untouched from year to year.”

According to HCCSCD’s financial statement at the conclusion of their last fiscal year on Aug. 31, 2012, the department had $397,193 in surplus.

Tittle did not attend an open meeting held on May 9, which was presided over by 354th District Judge Richard Beacom. The meeting included a presentation by McKenzie and Mike Taylor.

“Any time a judge is required to make a finding or a determination, that can’t be based on ‘I guess they probably are or I assume they are,’” County Court at Law Judge Andrew Bench said during the meeting. “We’re required to hear evidence on it and then make a determination on evidence we’ve heard.”

Court records indicate that no evidence was offered during the probation reviews that the payment of the fees would result in significant financial hardship in 79 of the fee waivers. In one case, according to McKenzie, the department had to write a probationer a check because the probationer prepaid his supervision fees that were subsequently waived by Tittle.

“If the findings require that you have to have a substantial hardship and this person obviously didn’t have a substantial hardship and, in fact, he was able to pay all his fees up front, how do you get there?” Hunt County Attorney Joel Littlefield asked during the meeting.

“Well, I think the man that can answer that question is not here, because we don’t understand it either,” Beacom replied.

Judge Horn was at a loss to explain Tittle’s reasons for waiving the supervision fees.

“It defies any common sense,” he said. “It defies logic. Because, ultimately, the probations department will reach out to the county or the state to increase their funding, and they will probably see a reduction in their ability to supervise probationers. That’s a scary thought.”

Information for this story contributed by Joseph Hamrick.

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