County leaders said there could be changes ahead for the Revenue & Reimbursement Department after news broke this week that it could lose one of its most significant collection accounts.
“I’m not one bit surprised. I knew it was going to happen,” said Karen Bricky, a longtime collector. Bricky wasn’t in the office when the announcement was made because of a medical leave but said she received multiple calls from other collectors. “I’m not angry because I saw this coming. I saw it coming for years.”
County Executive Officer Jim Brown on Friday acknowledged meeting with Revenue & Reimbursement staff this week but denied the department is closing. Brown said there are no recommended changes to the department in the county’s 2014-15 proposed budget, which will be presented in a meeting Tuesday.
Revenue & Reimbursement collects unsecured taxes and fees from county departments, including probation, mental health, human services, animal control and the library. But one of their biggest collection accounts, court-ordered debt, might soon be pulled, resulting in a 50 percent loss of account volume.
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“We have been notified by the courts that they are interested in finding a more cost-effective way for doing the collections for court-ordered debt,” Brown said. “If they were to do this, I need to look at the operation with the remaining volume of collections and determine what’s in the best interest of the employees and the organization.”
Brown said he’s putting together an independent three-person team to evaluate the Revenue & Reimbursement Department and recommend possible actions. The team will be made up of a county department head, someone from the CEO’s office and someone from the county auditor’s office.
Brown stressed that the team will have no ties to Revenue & Reimbursement.
“They will evaluate ways that we can be more cost-effective and/or options if the court does decide to take over the court collection effort for court-ordered debt,” Brown said.
He said court management approached him about looking for other ways to collect debt a few months ago, then had a serious talk this week about developing plans to move in that direction.
Brown said the Revenue & Reimbursement operation is more expensive than those in most counties across the state. The average county collection effort across the state is 24 cents on the dollar, Brown said, but the county department charged 70 cents on the dollar on the court-ordered debt accounts last year.
Court management told Brown the transition could happen by July 1, 2015.
Bricky said she’s not surprised the court is looking for alternative ways to collect debt. “It only makes sense for the court to be handling their own fees,” she said. “It’s money in their pockets.”
Bricky, who’s worked as a collector for 14 years, said there are plenty of county departments that need collection services and more collection accounts can be brought in. The department needs a collections supervisor to help bring in more money and retain the accounts it has, she added.
The collections supervisor position has been vacant since Anthony J. Thompson retired in February, after his arrest that month.
Thompson was arrested by the Sheriff’s Department on Feb. 11 on suspicion of offering to reduce fines and fees owed to the county for at least one woman in exchange for “dates.” No charges have been filed against Thompson and the case remains under investigation.
Bricky said she doesn’t blame the department head, Merced County Treasurer-Tax Collector Karen Adams, because she has her hands full running the treasurer’s office. “Karen Adams can’t do that at the level she sits at,” Bricky said. “I feel like Karen Adams was given something broken a long time ago. We don’t have management in our office.”
Brown said there was never a request made to fill the collections supervisor position. He said he would not approve such a request because the department needs to compare its cost-effectiveness with the rest of the state. “Until we understand the operations, we’re not going to fill a position,” he said.
If changes need to be made, Bricky said, she hopes collectors will be able to retain their jobs. “I feel a lot of our jobs can be saved,” she said. “We just need to be restructured. We really do.”