Scofflaws, beware! The long arm of the Jersey City law is reaching for you!
It’s no secret that state and local governments are flat broke and desperate to raise money any way they can. Jersey City is no different. The City Council has approved a contract to a collection agency that will soon begin to track down thousands of debtors who owe the city millions in uncollected municipal court fines.
Most of the fines owed, according to city officials, are for minor traffic offenses and parking tickets, and some date back as far as the 1990s.
“Jersey City has about 19,000 uncollected cases representing a little over $7 million, about $3.3 million [of which] would come directly to the city,” Bob Davis, a former fiscal officer of the Jersey City Municipal Court, told the council. The remainder of the moneu owed will go to the state “The court does not have the staff to do collections. They’re also restricted by the Administrative Office of the Court (AOC) in how those collections can be made. But the AOC recently allowed municipal courts through the state to [contract] with a collection agency, under strict guidelines, to recoup those fines.”
The City Council on Aug. 22 approved a five-year contract to Duncan Solutions, a collection agency, to go after municipal court debtors who never paid off what they owed. Old parking tickets received – and ignored – in, say, in February ’02, or a fine incurred for a broken tail light back in ’99, are now fair game for Duncan Solutions.
Although the City Council awarded a contract to Duncan Solutions to go after these fines, the city will not pay the company a fee. Instead, like all collections agencies, Duncan receives a percentage of the money it recoups from the debtors. Duncan will receive a 22 percent premium on the amount owed. The company, according to Duncan Solutions Regional Account Manager Greg Salerno, specializes in doing collections for the public sector.
“The company understands the sensitivity of these individuals, especially in difficult economic times,” Salerno told the council. “What we do as a company is we reach out and contact them. And in contacting them our philosophy is, we will work with you if you work with us. This is not beating people over the head with a hammer. This is not calling people at crazy hours.”
Residents: City needs the money
Residents interviewed last week gave the city’s collection plan mixed reviews.
“Well, we probably need the money, right? So, I guess I support it,” said Rick Burns. “I think I’m all paid up. I hope I’m all paid up anyway. I don’t think they’ll be calling me. It’s a good thing if it will bring a little more money to this city.”
But his friend Jack Coates was less enthusiastic.
“They’re just nickel and diming people,” said Coates. “And for what – $100, $75? That’s peanuts. I don’t like it. This thing sounds to me like those red light cameras they got everywhere now. It’s just another way to squeeze money out of working people who can’t afford these fines. It’s a cash cow for the government.”
Coates admitted that he might have an old parking ticket or two lurking in his past and could be among those who receive a call from Duncan employees.
Like Burns, Thayer Simmons supported the city’s efforts because, she said, “I just moved here two years ago and I don’t own a car. I take the PATH, so it won’t affect me directly. I don’t mind it.”
At least three other people interviewed supported the intent of the collection plan, but believed there should be a statute of limitations on what one person called “petty” fines. They all agreed that going after debts incurred in the 1990s was a bit excessive.
While some types of traffic and parking tickets are reported to the state and the state recoups those fines, the city is responsible for collecting tickets given by the Jersey City Police Department.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Council approves audit of Aqua Blu, Towers of America
Scofflaws aren’t the only ones who may soon have to pay up. A few developers may also have accounts that will need to be settled.
In addition to the contact awarded to Duncan Solutions, the City Council also approved a contract to the accounting firm of McEnerney, Brady & Co. to audit developments that received special tax breaks, known as payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs).
Developers often enter into PILOT, or tax abatement, agreements to pay a separate fee to the city instead of paying fluctuating property taxes. This keeps their tax rate stable over a number of years. The amount they pay can be based on a percentage of their profits. The money goes directly into the city budget and does not support local schools, although developers pay a nominal fee for county taxes.
The amount of money paid to the city is based on the development’s projected revenue from rentals or sales figures. The concern is that some properties low balled their projected revenues – either intentionally or unintentionally – and wound up paying less than they should have in taxes to the city.
As part of the $25,000 contract awarded to McEnerney, Brady & Co., the firm will audit Aqua Blu and Towers of America, both located in the Newport community.
In recent years some residents who oppose these deals have questioned whether the taxes generated from these developments are what the city anticipated when these tax deals were originally struck. These residents have argued that the tax revenue coming from some of these developments is millions of dollars less than what it should be and the city is being shortchanged.
Some auditing results from McEnerney, Brady & Co. bear this out.
According to a memo sent by the tax collector to Business Administrator Jack Kelly earlier this month, McEnerney, Brady & Co. has already concluded audits of 77 Hudson and the Marbella at 425 Washington St. The memo states that “as a result of these audits, the city billed and received an additional $140,000 this year in PILOT revenue,” an indication that these developments were, indeed, paying too little in taxes to the city.”
McEnerney, Brady & Co., according to the memo, is currently doing audits of three other developments “as a regular part of operations.”
McEnerney, Brady & Co. is based in Livingston, New Jersey. – EAW