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Supervisor Tony Hall is redoubling his efforts to privatize one chore for San Francisco’s local courts — collecting money. In a letter he sent last week to Presiding Judge Donna Hitchens and the San Francisco Superior Court’s executive committee, Hall accuses the court of not doing enough to collect court fines and fees. “Why does the court continue to support a passive and inadequate collection program?” Hall wrote. The city’s Office of the Treasurer & Tax Collector, which collects outstanding traffic fines and civil assessments for the court, netted hundreds of thousands of dollars last fiscal year, Hall estimates. He calls that amount “nothing but a pittance.” Following an October meeting to talk about Hall’s ongoing concerns, Hitchens wrote to Hall in a December letter that recent collections represent an increase. “The program has been quite successful,” Hitchens wrote. But Hall contends that counties of comparable size have historically collected $3 million to $6 million a year by assigning a private company to collect outstanding fees, fines and forfeitures. “Most counties [in California] have collection efforts going on with private collection agencies,” said Hall, who worked at the San Francisco Superior Court for about 15 years. He left his post as executive assistant to the presiding judge just before taking office in 2001. The supervisor also asserts that the treasurer’s office doesn’t have enough resources to adequately address what he estimates to be a backlog of about 27,000 cases. “The court still has a substantial backlog of cases that continues to be ignored and will eventually be dismissed, without any real attempt at recovery,” Hall’s letter predicts. The supervisor has been pushing for privatization for years. Sean Elsbernd, one of Hall’s legislative aides, notes that the clouds in San Francisco’s budget forecast don’t appear to be lifting anytime soon and argues, “If there’s ever a time to take a chance on it, now’s the time.” In Hitchens’ December letter, the PJ said she’s been trying desperately to find a way to outsource collection efforts. But state law prohibits such outsourcing unless the county gives the court specific authorization in an agreement, she wrote. Her letter also stressed that a recent California law requires the state Judicial Council to consider other options, such as suspending business and professional licenses, to increase collections. “Although we were prepared to consider a contract with an outside collector, it was clear that that was the county’s responsibility,” Hitchens told The Recorder. In Hall’s response last week, he disagreed with Hitchens’ analysis of the law. He closes his letter with a plea to the court to explore a “true collections program” — and a reminder that he plans to discuss the issue with Mayor Gavin Newsom as the city looks to balance its budget. “In facing the economic shortage that we’re looking at, we have to start looking at areas like collections,” Hall said in an interview .If the court isn’t willing to help, he added, “I think we should start taking a look at how we subsidize court operations through the county [budget]. Somebody’s got to be held responsible.”

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