City of Missoula strikes $25 surcharge; other cities may have to do the same

The Missoula City Council on Monday voted unanimously to nix a $25 surcharge imposed on state offenses in municipal court, and directed staff to look back over time to ensure those previously assessed the fee are reimbursed.

The decision, rendered after a 25-minute discussion, comes on the heels of last week’s Montana Supreme Court ruling, which found the surcharge unlawful. It also comes in response to a class-action lawsuit filed by a Ravalli County woman who was assessed the fee after being charged for reckless driving in Missoula Municipal Court.

As approved, the resolution immediately suspends the surcharge on state offenses in municipal court, but retains it for violations under city ordinance. It also directs staff to implement a mechanism to refund any surcharge imposed under the system.

“We’re asking staff to go back and look at the data we have available related to this,” said Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer. “We’ll work with the Montana Supreme Court and the Attorney General’s Office to understand what their expectations are related to refunds.”

While Missoula isn’t the only Montana city that assesses a surcharge for state offenses in municipal court, it did find itself at the sharp end of last week’s Montana Supreme Court ruling, which found the city usurped its authority by imposing the charge on state offenses.

Bickell said thousands of surcharges have been assessed and not paid in Missoula, meaning the city will have to work with its software vendor to filter those out. It will also need to staff the effort to refund all credible charges, which date back to 2003, not 2013 as last week’s lawsuit suggested.

“Just in the last five years, we had 61,000 transactions under the surcharge – it’s a large volume of transactions,” Bickell said. “We have data going back to 2003 that we’ll need to be able to get to, so depending on the scope and applicability of the refund program, we’ll have to look at our staffing requirements and operational costs related to doing something like that.”

Bickell estimated an average annual price tag of $220,000 for the past five years in total receipts collected through the system. Depending on how the refunds are allocated, the city may consider a budget amendment to cover the cost.

An estimated 80 percent of those charges are likely related to violations of state law.

The surcharge began at $5 in 2003. While that predates all current elected officials, most suggest the fee was created to ensure taxpayers weren’t forced to pay the court costs incurred by offenders in the system. Rather, the thinking went, the offenders should pay for it themselves.

It may also have been implemented to address the city attorney’s costs of prosecuting domestic abuse cases. Regardless, the Supreme Court ruled it illegal and ordered the city to strike the fee.

Other cities, including Billings and Helena, may be forced to do the same.

“This formally turns it off, but there’s a lot of unwinding to do here,” said Mayor John Engen. “We know that Helena uses these surcharges, and we believe some other jurisdictions do as well. We’re not alone here in facing the consequences of these surcharges.”

The cost of refunding offenders who were charged the fee won’t be covered by the city’s insurance.

“Liability insurance is based on negligence,” said City Attorney Jim Nugent. “There’s no negligence here. There’s an exclusion for refunds and paying back things. We’ve already been notified by voice mail and an email letter that there’s no coverage.”

Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks took her seat on the bench in 2011, roughly seven years after the city adopted the surcharge.

She described the court system as “fairly chaotic” at the time and expressed concern regarding the city’s ability to go back into the records to discern who should be reimbursed and who should not.

“I have some concerns about when we start looking at the records prior to that, it might be a challenge to figure out what was paid on the surcharge versus what was paid on the fine,” Jenks said. “I have some concerns and trepidation about going back there. But I don’t think we have a choice.”