Bernice won't repay motorists for fines, fees
BY SHEILA STOGSDILL World Correspondent
Monday, May 14, 2012
BERNICE — Town leaders voted Monday not to reimburse or make restitution to motorists who overpaid $134,064 in municipal court fines and fees.
A 71-page audit report released April 10 by the state Auditor and Inspector’s Office states that the town had not properly published its penal ordinances since 1977, resulting in the over-collection. Under state law, the municipal court should have followed certain procedures before levying any fine in excess of $50 but did not do so, the report says.
The contested amounts were on fines greater than $50.
With $106,308 in fines, $19,861 in fees that were supposed to have gone to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation and $7,895 in court costs, the community over-collected $134,064 since 2006, the audit states.
Trustees voted 3-1 not to reimburse the fines.
Connie Miller, a resident of 21 years, asked the trustees whether motorists might sue the town, adding, “As a property owner, I am concerned.”
“I think it opens a can of worms,” said Trustee Kristi Murphy, who cast the lone opposing vote. “By not making an effort to reimburse motorists, the community is opening itself up for a class-action lawsuit.
“I don’t want to spend the people’s taxes on a lawsuit (judgment); I want tax money going to the kids, streets and parks,” she said.
In November, Delaware County residents — where Bernice lies — were hit with a $13.5 million judgment in a civil rights lawsuit filed by 15 former jail inmates who claimed that two sheriff’s deputies had sexually assaulted them in the county jail.
Residents passed a half-cent, 17-year sales tax increase rather than pay higher property taxes, which were estimated to climb more than 18 percent every year for three years if that mechanism were used to pay the judgment.
David Jones, Bernice’s attorney, told the trustees that “the district attorney said this was an insurmountable burden to return these monies.”
The lakeside community has a population of 562.
Jones said the town had two defenses: that town leaders were in substantial compliance with the notice requirements and that any motorists had the opportunity to contest the fines at the time they paid them.
The town conceded that it failed to publish in a newspaper a 2007 amendment to its fine schedule as required by law, the audit states.
In related business, the trustees voted to pay the $17,882.62 cost of the audit, with the town absorbing 75 percent of the bill and the Bernice Public Works Authority the remaining quarter.
The board voted to table any action concerning the payment of the collected $19,861 that was supposed to have gone to the OSBI. Jones said that since the audit was released, the town has been in compliance with submitting OSBI fees.
Trustee David Dennis said that “what we owe is what we should pay.”