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NAACP, ACLU probe city’s fine method

By Tyler H. Jones

tjones@civitasmedia.com

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LaGRANGE — The Georgia NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia are investigating fine and probation fee collection practices of the city of LaGrange.

The groups say the city’s method of attaching delinquent fines and probation fees to utility bills unfairly targets minorities and the poor, according to a press release from the Georgia NAACP released Wednesday.

The city of LaGrange, which does not impose property taxes, owns and operates local utilities including power and water. The sale of utilities funds the city’s general budget.

“We’ve received multiple complaints that have been filed with our office from citizens who have been evicted, fired from employment and even been threatened to have their children removed from their custody by child welfare workers because they could not get essential utilities in their name due to an unpaid criminal fine attached to their accounts,” said Francys Johnson, a Statesboro attorney and president of the Georgia NAACP.

A town hall meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. today at the Church of the King, 911 Murphy Ave., to discuss the practice and hear from those who say they’ve been targeted by the city. Ernest Ward, president of the NAACP’s Troup County branch, asked people affected by the practice to come forward.

“Nothing will change until we change it,” he said in a statement. “We are not looking to make the city look bad.”

Following the hearing, members of the Georgia NAACP plan to meet with city officials to discuss solutions to alleviate the practice.

During a mayor’s town hall meeting last month, Mayor Jim Thornton addressed the practice of tacking delinquent fines and fees to utility bills. He said the method is employed by the city as a means of keeping people out of jail and is not meant to be punitive.

Meg Kelsey, interim city manager, today explained the process for placing the delinquent fines and fees on utility bills.

She said when a municipal court judge orders a defendant to pay a fine, and the person is unable to pay, that person is placed on probation for a set period of time. If the person fails to pay the entirety of the fine before the probation period ends, that fine is converted into a civil judgment and can be added to the person’s utility account — if they have one with the city.

Kelsey said the city is willing to work out payment arrangements with account holders, but if the person falls behind on the utility bill, they are in danger of having their utilities disconnected. She also added that no person is restricted from initially setting up an account because they have a civil judgment against them.

The practice is still concerning to the NAACP.

“This is not a black or white issue for the NAACP,” Johnson said. “This is a red, white and blue issue. … We are concerned that a disproportionate share of the budget of LaGrange is supported by those who can least afford it.”

In fiscal year 2013-2014, the city collected about $1.5 million in fines and probation fees, according to the city’s 2015-2016 budget. That figure does not include court-ordered restitution, electronic monitoring fees or narcotics condemnations. The city’s total budget for that period was about $110 million.

TOWN HALL

The NAACP is slated to host a meeting regarding the probation and fine collection method today at 6 p.m. at the Church of the King, 911 Murphy Ave.

Tyler H. Jones is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2155.