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County faces attorney fee backlog

LAKE ANDES -- Charles Mix County is working on making a dent in collecting about $2.3 million in back court-appointed attorney fees owed by offenders.

County Auditor Angie Meyerink, who has been in office for four years, said the backlog extends to the 1980s. She inherited the problem when she took office and doesn't know how the backlog grew to seven figures.

Meyerink recently updated county commissioners on the situation.

"It's something I've been working on since I took office," she said. "It's something we have chosen to deal with at this time."

Bob Wilcox, South Dakota Association of County Commissioners executive director, said he was unaware of a county being owed as much as seven figures in outstanding court-appointed attorney fees.

"It's fair to say that it seems to be a major concern," he said.

Meyerink and her staff have been sifting through vouchers and creating files on each individual to track the amounts owed for a few months. She said recently that her office is about 75 percent finished with that task, with more than 1,000 files started.

The county has signed a contract for an undisclosed amount with National Collection Services in Sioux City to aid in the collection process.

Some problems complicating the collection process are that Meyerink's staff is discovering some individuals have inaccurate or out-of-date addresses. Some people have died.

One of the largest bills is from Becky Rose Johnson, who was sentenced to 70 years in prison for first-degree manslaughter in 2006. The majority of her $79,686 debt stems from that case, but that includes fees owed from other cases, Meyerink said.

The county submitted $57,018 in charges for court-appointed attorney fees to the state Catastrophic Legal Expense Relief Program to offset six claims made by two defense attorneys in Johnson's case, according to Kris Jacobsen, administrative assistant for the county commissioners association. The group administers the program.

The county has placed liens on real estate owned by debtors to create an opportunity to recover some of the funds, Meyerink said.

Part of any funds collected from liens that are paid off must be submitted to CLERP to reimburse counties that belong to the program, Jacobsen said. The most common way to collect money from liens is through the sale of property or acquiring inheritance money, she said.

"Rarely do we get money back," Jacobsen said.

Despite the minimal return, counties do the best they can to recover those funds, Wilcox said.

The county has been sending letters to debtors about the money they owe.

"We are making them aware they have a lien and (should) contact us to set up a payment schedule or remit payment," Meyerink said.

Some individuals are using payment plans, payroll deductions or even paying their fees in full.

On a recent Friday, one person paid off a $1,684 debt dating back to 1997, Meyerink said.

"We are going to turn over to the collection agency anything we have not collected," she said.

Keith Mushitz, county board chairman from Geddes, said the county has been using collection agencies as other counties have done.

"We are getting some fees (collected)," he said. "We can put a lien on their property and that's it. When people don't care, it doesn't make a lot of difference."