DA’s Office brings in extra funding
By LPR Staff
Over the course of the last two years, the Caldwell County District Attorney’s Office has exceeded their projected revenues by more than 100 percent, simply by doing what they do.
Last month, District Attorney Fred Weber presented a check to the Commissioner’s Court for $97,537. The funds were
received from the enforcement and collection of bond forfeitures over the last two-and-a-half fiscal years.
The County had expected only $45,000.
“The point of going after the bond forfeitures is not to raise money,” said Civil Assistant District Attorney Jordan Powell on Monday evening, though she admitted the collection of the funds is a happy side effect. “The point is to bring offenders back to jail, so they can be brought back to court to answer for their crimes.”
As the Civil ADA, part of Powell’s job is to file and pursue the civil cases to enact bond forfeitures, which allows the County to collect on the funds put up for bonds as a promise for defendants to appear in court. Often, those defendants choose to violate the conditions of their bond, allowing the County to file for civil judgments against them and collect a monetary reward based on those broken promises.
While Caldwell County Judge Kenneth Schawe’s last two budgets have reflected revenues based on bond forfeitures, Powell’s efforts have far exceeded expectations.
“I don’t know why it’s so much higher than it has been in the past,” Weber said. “I’m not clear on what the policies were before [we] got here. But I know that [Powell] has been working very hard on this, and that hard work shows, not only in the money that’s coming in, but in the defendants that are being brought back to answer for their crimes.”
The bond forfeiture funds have been at the center of discussions since Weber turned over the check last month. Miscommunications between Weber’s office, County Treasurer Lori Rangel and Caldwell County Auditor Debra French led the Commissioners to believe that for several years, funds had been budgeted, but not remitted. Weber was able to produce the checks proving that not only had the funds been remitted since FY 2011-12, but that the revenues had consistently exceeded the expected levels.
But not to the degree they have since Powell took over chasing bond forfeitures.
“We wanted to make sure that the Commissioners understand that we’ve not been holding on to these funds,” Weber said. “In fact, the DA’s Office is entitled to keep a commission based on the bond forfeiture collections, and we’ve chosen not to do that. This money goes directly into the general fund.”
Still, Weber said, the process of remitting the funds only once a year after storing them in a “pass-through” account is not the way he would have chosen to set up the system. Indeed, as French and Powell discussed during Monday morning’s meeting of the Caldwell County Commissioners’ Court, that process has been changed in an effort to avoid further misunderstanding in the future.
“We’ve closed that account, and that’s reflected in every penny of that $97,000 check,” Powell said. “Now what will happen is that the checks will be made directly to Caldwell County, rather than the DA’s Office, and they will be remitted every month to the Auditor and the Treasurer with a record of the fines and fees. The fees due to the Clerk’s Office will be paid directly to them, and the rest will go straight to the County, instead of to the ‘pass-through.’”
How to use that money, on the other hand, is less clear. Schawe noted during several discussions on the issue that the funds are already woven into the budget; the excesses are funneled into reserves to address emergency issues and budget over-reaches as they arise.
“It’s just like with any other department that collects fines and fees,” he said. “Sometimes, they meet budget, sometimes they exceed it and others, they fall short. So we have to just make the best estimate and go from there.”
Commissioner Alfredo Munoz has asked repeatedly that the excess bond forfeitures be earmarked to pay a portion of what may be upwards of $400,000 that has not been paid to the State of Texas in recent years in miscoded and unremitted State fees. Schawe balked at the notion, reminding the Commissioners that the total of that deficit is not yet clear; better to wait, he said, and know how much the bill will be, and figure out from there how to pay it.
In other business, the Commissioners took up a discussion with Flint Hills Resources, a Mustang Ridge plant dealing in refinery, biofuel and chemical polymers. The plant, located near the intersection of Highway 21 and FM 1854, has periodically entered into agreements with the County to provide road work in the area, with the County supplying the labor and Flint Hills paying the costs.
In this case, Commissioner Neto Madrigal brought forward the proposal to widen County Road 176, also known as Lone Star Road, where the plant is located. Problems have arisen, Madrigal said, because the narrow road often creates complications with trucks passing one another; a wider intersection, Madrigal said, would ease that pressure, as well as making the intersection, known to be relatively dangerous, safer for passing traffic both on Highway 21 and on FM 1854.
The proposal calls for widening the road to 12 feet in both directions, with a 12-foot center, tapering back to its normal width as it travels northward toward the plant. The total cost of the project, Madrigal said, is expected not to exceed $9,000.
“They have been a good partner,” Madrigal said. “They have made lots of agreements with us and they have always held up their end.”
Specifically, Madrigal referred to a project required by TxDOT that saw Caldwell County abandon a portion of the southern leg of County Road 176, thus eliminating the five-way “spur” intersection in the area. Part of this project, he said, would be to replant the abandoned area, helping to ensure that drivers would not mistake the spur for an active road, thereby further decreasing traffic dangers in the area.
Provided the project does not exceed the $9,000 price tag, the Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the partnership with Flint Hills, which will also involve TxDOT, as the State owns a portion of the involved right-of-way on Highway 21.
The Commissioners also decided, on the recommendation of Emergency Management Coordinator Martin Ritchey, to enact an outdoor burning ban, effective Monday.
Ritchey notified the Commissioners that several of the County’s Fire Chiefs have reported an uptick in wildland fire activity – indeed, later that afternoon, Caldwell County resources assisted Hays County departments in a Kyle-area fire that destroyed more than 150 acres.
Ritchey noted most of the chiefs, with two exceptions, had spoken in favor of enacting the ban, as dry conditions are expected to continue, and shifting winter weather patterns have caused an increase in high wind days. While the Keetch-Byram Drought Index for the County does not yet reflect the need for a ban, he said, he expected the figures to increase as the week wears on, making a ban appropriate, if not necessary, by the end of the week.
“We’re at the tipping point,” he said. “But conditions are degrading, and [I think it’s time].”
The Court voted unanimously to enact the burn ban.
In brief news:
The Court voted 4-1 to appoint Commissioner Joe Roland as Judge Pro Tem for the 2017 calendar year, though Schawe noted the vote can be reconsidered after two new Commissioners are sworn in in January. Roland, himself, voted against the proposal.
They approved, 4-1, entering an interlocal agreement with the City of Martindale, Texas State Tubes and Don’s Fish Camp to repair a section of Northwest River Road in Martindale.
They appointed Commissioner Eddie Moses to serve on the Board of Directors for the Capital Area Rural Transportation System.
The County paid bills in the amount of $82,955.01.
The Caldwell County Commissioners’ Court routinely meets on the second and fourth Monday of each month at 9 a.m. in the second floor courtroom of the Caldwell County Courthouse. However, they will only meet once in December, as they agreed to cancel their regularly-scheduled Dec. 26 meeting due to the Christmas holiday. Commissioners’ Court meetings are open to the public and are available for online viewing at www.co.caldwell.tx.us.