Since the city of Meridian on Wednesday published a list of people who collectively owe more than $9 million in fines, the courts-and-records staff at the Meridian Police Department have been busy.
“We’ve had a great response,” Mayor Percy Bland said. “They’ve been working their butts off since we put it in the paper on Wednesday — a lot of phone calls… And we’ve had a lot of activity of people coming in.”
The list, which was published Wednesday in the print edition of The Meridian Star, includes 27,151 entries totaling $9,290,162 in fines. The oldest entries date back to 1985.
The fines, which are mostly for criminal offenses ranging from traffic violations to crimes such as theft and forgery, do not include parking tickets.
Since Wednesday, most of the inquiries have been from those attempting to make arrangements to pay the fines, Bland said. Some, however, have been from people contesting the fines.
Bland said those contesting the fines will help the city build an updated list.
“We’re also using this to purge our data and to clean up that database,” Bland said. “… Some people may have … paid their fines; some people are deceased, but also we had a lot of parents that may not have known that their kids got some sort of tickets before they went off to college.”
With the outstanding fines, many of the names on the list could have contempt charges, which means outstanding warrants.
“As mayor, I would not want anyone to have a contempt of court out there and they get pulled over and there’s a warrant out for their arrest and they don’t even know it,” Bland said.
In the meantime, those whose names are on the list are encouraged to contact the courts and records department to either make payment arrangements or contest the fine.
Currently, plans are in the works to create a structured payment plan for those who are unable to pay the full amount right away.
Meridian Police Chief Benny Dubose said while the list is a work in progress, those whose fines are valid will soon be able to make a down payment of 25 percent of the fine or $500, whichever is less, and then pay $100 per month until the debt is paid.
“That’s what we’re working on at this time,” Dubose said. “We’re just waiting on the judge to sign the order.
“We need to make some type of effort to recover what’s owed. I didn’t realize it was $9 million until I was told — it’s quite a bit of fines. I think what some people don’t realize is that even though it’s the $9 million, all that money doesn’t go to the city — some of those fees have to go to the state.”
Unpaid fines may be paid from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday at the courts and records department of the MPD, located at 510 22nd Avenue South, Meridian, MS 39301; by mail to the same address; or online at www.meridiantix.com. Online payment requires a docket number, which can be obtained by calling 601-484-6811 or 601-485-1839.
Moving forward, further collections will continue, as the mayor said the city will consider publishing an updated list of fines in the newspaper in 30 to 45 days.
As for further collection efforts, Brandye Latimer, the city’s assistant director of finance and records, said a group of employees is drafting follow-up letters, the first of which will be mailed in the next few weeks.
Meanwhile, the state legislature is working on a bill to help the collection efforts of local governments.
Late last year, the Meridian City Council prepared a resolution to collect those fines in anticipation of a the bill, known as the Local Government Debt Collection Setoff Act. Currently in committee, the bill would allow the Department of Revenue to collect debts owed to local governments from individual state tax returns.
At the time of the resolution, it was reported that the city had more than $5 million in unpaid fines on the books, about $4 million less than was published.
The Mississippi Municipal League is the force behind the bill, which is similar to laws used in other states.
"This is our bill," MML Executive Director Shari Veazey said in a previous report. Veazey added that the law would benefit local governments because they are unable to write off the mounting debt.
“We feel like this is just one tool to help our cities collect some of this outstanding municipal fine debt,” Veazey said, who added that the state would also benefit from the law, as it would also receive an assessment on each fine.