The city of Beaufort is to be commended for revisiting an old program that taps state income tax returns to recoup unpaid fines levied by Beaufort Municipal Court.
In fact, if all goes well, the city should expand its use of this program to collect from other debtors.
State law allows agencies to collect debts from state income-tax refunds by submitting a claim to the S.C. Municipal Association, which passes them to the S.C. Department of Revenue. The Department of Revenue takes out the amount the debtor owes, plus $25 each to cover state and association administrative fees and another $25 if the local government participating in the program elects to charge it.
In other words, those who owe court fees and do not pay up would see a deduction from their state tax return for the amount of the fee, plus $75. The prospect of an additional charge should be enough to prompt some to make good on what they owe before they fall deeper into arrears, particularly when the amounts are small.
Both Bluffton and Hilton Head Island have ordinances allowing the $25 fee for debt collection. Beaufort County attorney Josh Gruber added that county EMS is a longtime program participant but does not add the $25 administrative charge.
When the city of Beaufort first used the program, it did not charge the $25 fee, either. However, by about 2008, city officials decided the return wasn't worth the effort staff was putting into filing claims. By charging the fee this time around, the participation figures to be more cost-effective.
If that proves to be the case, it might be used to collect more than $500,000 in parking fines accrued over the past three years, finance directory Kathy Todd has said. And there's no reason it couldn't also be used to collect on other debts and taxes owed the city.
At a time when the economy is still sluggish, city budgets are still tight and Beaufort officials long for additional revenue, it only makes sense to first seek aggressive collection of what is already owed to the city.