The request for payment took Terri by surprise. After all, the City of Fort Worth was demanding payment for a parking ticket that the former city employee swears she’d already paid. Even more startling, the ticket was almost 10 years old. She asked that her last name not be used; she doesn’t want her complaints to cast a shadow on family members who still work for the city.
The bill didn’t refer to a ticket number — she was just told she owed $26. Terri thought about contesting the bill. That would require finding proof of her payment and taking time to go downtown to the municipal court and talk to a judge.
“To go back 10 years and … pull up those records, it’s not worth it,” she said.
In the past few months, several of her friends have also been billed for years-old tickets. Local attorneys say they have received calls from residents complaining of similar demands for payment.
At the Fort Worth Weekly office, at least three employees have received such payment requests, including one writer who received a demand for $854 to pay traffic tickets he allegedly got in 2002 and 2003 that he doesn’t remember receiving.
Another Weekly writer, Peter Gorman, got a ticket in November 2004 for having no proof of car insurance. Two days later, Gorman said, he took his proof of insurance to the municipal court, showed it to a judge, and the ticket was dismissed.
Earlier this year, however, a Texas law firm, Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, sent Gorman a bill for $425 and threatened him with arrest if he didn’t pay. The letter accused him of ignoring previous requests for payment. The onus is on residents to prove they’ve taken care of the tickets.
For 30 years the San Antonio-based Linebarger firm has focused on government collections in Texas and now boasts contracts with municipalities nationwide. The company gets to keep 30 percent of the money it collects from Fort Worth traffic tickets.
“This was the first time this ever came up,” said Gorman, who still lives at the same address he did in 2004 and said he’d gotten no other notices or any correspondence about the dismissed ticket. “I bet most people are frightened into paying it with that threat of arrest. This is not right. It’s intimidation. They wait until a ticket goes up to $425 and then they send me a notice?”
Gorman has contested the payment request and requested a jury trial.
Terri, the woman who got billed for $26, was a city employee in December 2005 when Fort Worth’s municipal court changed to a new computer management system. She said the switchover to the CourtView system created problems in record-keeping that are now prompting erroneous payment requests.
Municipal court administrators deny that.
“They are confident that the switch and implementation are not a cause for any challenges today,” city spokesman Bill Begley said.
The city sends about 400,000 tickets to Linebarger each year for collection. Most are for recent infractions, but Linebarger also attempts to collect on some old unpaid tickets each month.
“Just because they’re old doesn’t mean you don’t have an obligation to pay them,” said Glenn Lewis, a partner at the law firm.
City officials in recent years have pressured the municipal courts to increase their efficiency in collecting ticket revenues. The city previously paid Linebarger to collect on delinquent fines from 2003 to 2005 but didn’t renew the contract during the computer upgrade. Four years passed before the city re-hired the law firm to help with collections.
The city’s records are usually correct, but some old cases have contained errors, Lewis said.
“When you have that many old files, certainly you are going to have some in error, and when we find those errors we try to correct them,” he said. “Given the number of files that are turned over, those that have errors in them are a very small percentage.”
Still, Lewis himself acknowledged receiving a payment request for a parking ticket that he disputes.
“I got one on a car I never owned,” he said. “Maybe when somebody wrote down the license plate number, they transposed the numbers or something, I don’t know.
“It may be bothersome to have to deal with that for something you didn’t do in the first place,” he said, “but what is the alternative, that the city make no effort to try to collect on tickets because some of them are in error?”
Lewis said he didn’t know how many cases contain errors each month.
“I don’t know that anybody has attempted to quantify it,” he said.
Begley, the city spokesman, said that of the 1.1 million tickets sent to Linebarger for collection since 2009, only 300 cases have been disputed.
Andrew Hawkins is one of a cadre of local attorneys who spend much of their days in municipal court representing motorists who are seeking dismissals or deferred adjudication on tickets. In the past year, he said, he’s gotten a couple of calls a month from residents complaining about receiving payment requests for tickets they’d paid years earlier.
“Fort Worth has had some problems,” he said. “I’ve heard enough people complain that I do think they’ve had some bookkeeping problems out there. But I have no way to verify it. I hear this from people who call up and say the same scenario, they paid the ticket and now they’re contacted years later to say they owe money.”
The problems and complaints he’s received concern older tickets.
“I don’t think they have the problem anymore because I never hear this involving new tickets,” he said.
Hawkins said he tells the callers to find proof of payment, take it to municipal court, and ask a judge to dismiss the case.
Begley confirmed that municipal judges dismiss tickets if proof of payment is presented. However, he said the chance of an erroneous bill being sent to someone is “extremely rare.”
The municipal courts switched to the CourtView computer management system six years ago. During the transition the city stopped contracting with a collection firm to chase down payments for unpaid tickets. Working out kinks in the new system while also slowing down on collection of traffic fines created a backlog that is still being addressed.
A local attorney who asked not to be named said the city’s transition from its old paper case files and mainframe computer system to the CourtView software created record-keeping problems for a while.
“CourtView was awful at first, but it’s better now,” the attorney said.
In 2008, the organizational analysis unit of the city manager’s office looked at the municipal court system and pointed out quality-control issues related to case management but not the new computer system. The resulting report noted that implementing the new computer system had been difficult, but that things were getting better.
Municipal court administrators say no files or information were lost during that switchover. Incorporating the CourtView software created “some initial challenges, but they have been resolved, and the system meets the current demands,” Begley said.
Gorman isn’t so sure. He went to the municipal court and asked for a record of the ticket he received, the same ticket that he said was later dismissed by a judge. A clerk told him she couldn’t find it.
“This citation is not in the city’s computer system,” Gorman said. “Fort Worth has no record of any of this. They can’t look me up and say I owe money. Only the law firm collecting for the city of Fort Worth says I owe money.”