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Pay center at court 'great opportunity' for the county and the state

WILLMAR -- Kandiyohi County's willingness to be a partner with the state, along with putting together an attractive lease proposal, helped it land a contract to host a new centralized court payment center.

"It's a great opportunity for us," said County Administrator Larry Kleindl, during a presentation Tuesday to the Kandiyohi County Board of Commissioners.

Not only that, said Chairman Dennis Peterson, it's also good for the Eighth Judicial District Court and neighboring rural counties.

Kandiyohi County was competing against metro communities for the payment center, which will initially hire eight to 10 people who will be employees of the state. Having the Minnesota Court Payment Center located in Willmar is good for rural Minnesota, Peterson said.

The center will be located on the third floor of the Kandiyohi County Courthouse, which had been used for storage for a number of years. Minor remodeling of the space is already under way so that the payment office can open in mid-January.

"Thanks go to the County Board for making this a reality," said Tim Ostby, Eighth Judicial District Administrator. He said the security system at the courthouse and a stable and capable county court staff that's willing to participate in pilot projects helped secure the contract.

It's not certain how many years the center will be located in Willmar. Kleindl is in the process of negotiating that part of the contract with the state.

The payment center is one part of a three-step process to streamline the court system and "make our system as efficient as we possibly can," said Ostby.

Like all state departments, the courts are also experiencing a budget shortfall, Ostby told the commissioners. It's hoped that putting some of the duties into a centralized state system will save taxpayers money.

It's a system that will be gradually implemented over the next 18 months.

One step in the new system includes entering electronic case data on citations, such as traffic tickets, into a state computer network. Another component is a call center where people who receive tickets can call to get questions answered. Both of those duties will be performed by home-based employees who may be located throughout the state.

The payment center in Willmar will process all payable fines generated in 85 of the 87 counties in the state. Payable fines are for citations that do not require a court appearance, although court appearances will still be granted for people who wish to contest their citations.

Ostby said the Willmar facility will process "millions of dollars" in fines every year. The revenue will be sent to the state.

People will still be able to hand-deliver payments in person to their individual county court administrator's office, said Teresa Fredrickson, Kandiyohi County District Court Administrator.

But having a centralized payment center will give people additional options, including sending payments in the mail and making payments via the Internet or over the phone, no matter where they live or where the citation was issued. The public will not have access to the payment center to make direct payments there.

It's not yet known whether the new system will mean any job losses in counties throughout the state. Ostby said it's possible some positions may eventually be eliminated through attrition.

The new system is being modeled on current practices in Hennepin and Ramsey counties in the metro. Those counties will continue to operate separately from the state centralized system but may eventually be brought into it, Ostby said.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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