There is an issue here in our town. As one of the greatest little cities on Earth, it is important to keep an open discourse about issues that are going on all around us and to be able to discuss them candidly. On Thursday, February 25, there was a public meeting of the NAACP held here in LaGrange at the Church of the King on Murphy Avenue. The meeting was in regards to an issue that has long been discussed here in our city. The full process of this is as follows: Back in 2004, the then Mayor and City Council passed a resolution that would act as a jail deterrent for those facing legal issues. If you lived inside city limits and had an active utility account with the city, then instead of posting your probation fines right up front, the city could then attach those fines to your electricity bill so that you would not be arrested and jailed for failure to make these payments. There is a copy of the formal written policy that states the on goings of this practice that has been made available here to us at Troup County News.
The public meeting of the NAACP was held to address the public’s concerns over this practice and to state how they feel they have been wronged by it. There were several people from the community that told their story of how their lights were turned off and how they were unable to secure lights in their names as a result of an existing fine.
There were representatives there from the ACLU and the Southern Center for Human Rights as well as the state president of the NACCP, Francys Johnson. There were also attorneys on hand to speak individually to all of those affected by this practice. Many people were upset and the next course of action, per the NACCP and its other representatives, is pursing litigation.
On the other hand, the city is also being forthcoming and open about its practices and procedures, willing to have an open discourse about this very subject. Troup County News reached out to the mayor and the city for their response to these issues.
The mayor has had an open line of communication with Ernest Ward, the local president of the NAACP and has also spoken with TCN extensively about the issues that are present here. He emphasized that the city’s policy restricts this practice to situations where the same individual has both an unpaid fine and a utility account in their name. The city practice is also not to disconnect services as long as current usage is paid and some arrangements are in place for payments of the fine balance over time. In other words, when you make your monthly utility payment as required and then put forwards some amount towards your probation fine, your power will not be disrupted.
Now this is not to say that at some where in this process that someone could have been affected in a way that was not supposed to happen. One of the main two issues that the mayor discussed was whether or not this policy is being implemented correctly by the city, which the Mayor and Mr. Ward have had discussions on and anyone who has been affected when the fine on the light bill is not their own could come forward and let the city address this issue.
Additionally, there is a misconception as to the supposed money struggle between this practice. Many people believe this system is in place to keep money in the hands of the wealthy and to keep poor people down.
The official numbers have been released from last year and the City of LaGrange by no stretch of the imagination has made a giant profit from these fines. The total number of court fines collected by the city $1,100,000. These are fines collected in court, not added to utility bills. The total in probation fees is near $400,000. So with a gross total of $1.5 million, which is a significant amount of money, the total comes out to be less than two percent of the city’s $110 million budget.
There is also the issue of the amount of money actually added to utility bills because of unpaid fines. Last year, the amount was $42,000 out of total fines and fees of $1.5 million, less than three of total fines and fees are unpaid and therefore attached to utility bills.
The entire issue boils down to a view of perspective. Many people in the community feel wronged by this practice and believe that they are being held down, not being able to make amends for past crimes. The practice was originally started to help people stay out of jail.
At the end of the day, if your utility bill and probation fines are separated, even though you may be able to pay your light bill, if your probation fine is left unpaid, you will be taken directly to jail. Then you have an entire slew of new issues to deal with, including losing your job and being separated from your family. The probation fines are required to be paid at a state level, something the city has no control over in the first place.
So here we are at a crossroads between two groups. The positive here is that the lines of communication are open. Your city and its officials are not out to harm you. If anything they are going to great lengths to protect and serve you. The probation funds attached to utility bills is supposed to be a help, not a hindrance. Additionally, the NAACP and its other sister organizations are watching this case to make sure that the practice is implemented in the correct way and that no one is being taken advantage of as well.
In the midst of this controversy with heated heads and hearts that are full of passion, it is important to remember what is important here. We are all one peoples, sharing this section of land that we call a city. We all want what’s best for ourselves and our neighbors. A peaceful and full solution can be found to this problem as long as we continue to communicate and have a peaceful, open discourse about these events. We all live in and love La-Grange so let’s work together for the great good of all peoples.
Jeremy Andrews Staff Writer