Since September, Missoula Municipal Court staff has been cutting checks to defendants on nearly an every-other-day basis, refunding city-imposed surcharges found by the Supreme Court to have been illegally collected.
The city has refunded defendants approximately $1,500, with checks ranging from $5 to $75, municipal court administrator Tina Reinicke said Monday.
But when the city asked its database vendor to eliminate all of its outstanding surcharge accounts — which date back to 2003, when the city began imposing surcharges on state law violations — that number was a little more weighty: $489,000 that people hadn't yet paid in surcharges is no longer owed.
That was the easy part. Refunding people who paid those surcharges is complicated work, Reinicke said. When people pay their fines, that money is divvied out to five or six different accounts. Court records older than a certain point aren't even housed in the main city building, and the court database system has undergone two conversions since 2003.
"What sounds like a seemingly simple issue is actually pretty difficult," she said. "We pulled some reports — there were 61,000 lines of data to review on a five-year look-back period."
In September, the Montana Supreme Court ruled that the City of Missoula had overstepped its authority when it passed a resolution adding surcharges to convictions on state law violations. The lawsuit that climbed to the Supreme Court and resulted in that ruling identified a 2013 resolution passed by the City Council to use those surcharges to help fund the City Attorney's Office.
But when Missoula Municipal Judge Kathleen Jenks learned of the Supreme Court's ruling, she instructed court staff to address all surcharges since 2003, when the council began imposing surcharges by resolution.
Missoula officials passed a resolution one week after the Supreme Court's ruling to research and determine how to proceed with the accounting acrobatics involved with determining who paid what amount, considering surcharges started at $5 in 2003 and gradually climbed to $25 10 years later.
The ruling touched off a similar process in Helena, as city attorney Thomas Jodoin told the Independent Record that Helena's fees were virtually the same as Missoula's as unauthorized by the state. Helena City Manager Ana Cortez did not return phone calls on Monday seeking comment.
The ruling also sparked a lawsuit in Billings, which looks to reclaim a $10 surcharge leveled against anyone convicted or who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges or traffic charges in municipal court there.
Missoula attorneys similarly sought to litigate the city into refunding those subject to the surcharges. That case was short-lived: Attorney Jesse Kodadek told the Missoulian on Monday he and his client, a Ravalli County woman, decided to pull back on their lawsuit after the city initiated its own refund process.
"They did the right thing," Kodadek said.
That process may be less combative than putting up a fight in court, but Reinicke said Monday it's still a testing effort. People typically don't even know their case numbers, she said, so asking people whether they were given the extra surcharge, paid it or didn't is not the most robust source of information. That means court staff is diving into these cases, starting with the oldest cases at the bottom of the pile, to suss out who is getting paid that $5 back.
Reinicke said as of Monday, there are 108 refund requests left to process, although she expects requests to continue coming in to the city office.
"We have learned a lot in this process," she said. "We process city surcharges every single day. In my opinion, the task is probably taking longer than people wished, but we are so overwhelmed with our workload now, and this is a very detailed financial task."
Those who believe they are entitled to a surcharge refund can fill out a form at the Missoula Municipal Court website or pick up a form in person at 435 Ryman St.