Shannon Monson of Pierre could have gone to prison for 10 years, charged with a Class 4 felony for stealing $17,701.20 from her employer as of July 2018. But her clean record and attempts to right her wrong got her a deal from prosecutors.
On Tuesday, Sept. 3, state Judge Bridget Mayer sentenced Monson to pay back the money in installments, serve five years on probation and keep working.
Mayer granted Monson’s request for a suspended imposition of sentence that will mean the felony will not go on her record.
Monson, who is 43, worked for Ace Steel and Recycling at 2700 Industrial Road, across Wells Avenue/state Highway 34 from the state Women’s Prison on the southeast corner of Pierre.
She was charged last summer with embezzling the money from her employer, a Class 4 felony that carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.
Her attorney, Dave Siebrasse, told Judge Mayer on Tuesday that his client “is a woman who made some extremely bad choices.”
But “tough emotional times,” including Monson’s mother’s death and marital problems “kind of sent her into a tailspin,” Siebrasse said. “She was not thinking clearly. But she is taking responsibility for those choices.”
Even though Monson does not think that she took the entire $17,701.20, “she still wants to pay that full amount,” to make things right, Siebrasse said.
Hughes County State’s Attorney Roxanne Hammond wrote up a lesser charge this summer against Monson, to a Class 6 felony with a top sentence of two years in prison, in what state law describes as a theft involving between $1,000 and $2,500.
Hammond said if Monson would plead guilty to the lesser charge and agree to pay the full restitution of $17,701.20, the state would recommend probation and no prison time and would not oppose her request for a suspended imposition of sentence.
“I appreciate that she was willing to take responsibility for her actions,”Hammond told the court on Tuesday. “Her (criminal) record before this was pretty much nil. I have no doubt she will be successful (on probation and in paying back the money.)”
Monson was given credit for the 21 days she has spent in jail and ordered by Mayer to spend her $750 cash bond posted earlier with the court as her first restitution payment and then make monthly payments.
“You earned it,” Mayer told Monson of her suspended imposition of sentence. “You immediately got to work and there was nothing in your background. Good luck to you.”
(Ed. note — This is Part II of a two-part story)
Thousands of South Dakotans have lost their privileges to hunt, fish or drive within the state since 2016 because they owe money to government agencies for unpaid fines, fees or even college tuition. Often the people hardest hit by state debt collection efforts are low-income residents who are the least able to pay up.
Boost government revenue without a tax hike
There are no government employees tracking down debtors by making phone calls or writing threatening letters for the Obligation Recovery Center. Instead, South Dakota hired a private contractor to do the work. The center is, largely, a software system managed by a contractor called CGI Technologies and Solutions. Many of its debt collection functions are automated, but CGI also operates a call center for customer service and debt-collection phone calls. Debtors can also use the system to make payments and enter into payment plans on their own.
Now headquartered in Virginia, CGI has become a global entity offering to governments all over the world a wide variety of services including information technology outsourcing, business processing and consulting services. The company says it has successfully worked with 20 states on successful debt collection programs and has helped governments all over the world boost revenue by $3.5 billion by improving collection of unpaid taxes and debts.
Over the past 10 years, CGI has been involved in some high-profile failures. The company helped build the originally troubled federal healthcare.gov website created as part of the 2009 Affordable Care Act. More recently, in 2018, CGI was awarded no-bid contracts as part of a failed effort to privatize and outsource the Information Technology arm of the Kansas Department of Revenue.
Through its consulting arm, CGI was an integral part of the creation of the South Dakota Debt Obligation Recovery Center in 2015. A year earlier, then-Gov. Dennis Daugaard was looking for a way to boost state revenues without raising taxes. As it turns out, an analysis conducted by CGI found the state was owed more than $120 million, ranging from unpaid taxes and fines to college tuition and court-ordered restitution.
At the time, state government agencies were individually responsible for collecting unpaid debts. For example, if a student dropped out of a state university two-thirds of the way through a semester and didn’t pay their tuition bill prior to 2015, the university would solely have been responsible for collecting the debt. Often, this meant employees who spent time on other duties were stuck making collection calls or sending letters. If that didn’t work, the school would have been forced to absorb the loss or contract with a private collection agency and then write off a healthy portion of the debt.
In the case of court-ordered debts, such as for criminal restitution, fines and court fees, which cannot be written down, the debts often went uncollected altogether. The state’s court system didn’t employ full-time debt collectors.
Daugaard Administration officials — with the help of CGI — devised a central collections center to which the state’s agencies could refer debts they were unable to collect. The governor told the legislature in 2015 that centralizing the debt collection process would be more efficient and successful by putting it into the hands of professional debt collectors.
To pay for the operations of the new debt collection center, any debts referred to it were assessed a 20 percent surcharge. The debtor would be responsible for the extra 20 percent charge in addition to their original debt. Part of the sales pitch given to legislators in 2015 was that the ORC would be entirely self-sustaining due to the 20 percent charge.
Another piece of the sales pitch was that creating the ORC would not require more state employees. The process would mostly be automated and third parties could be contracted to handle debts that needed a more traditional collections approach. Responsibility for keeping tabs on the ORC and managing the state’s relationship with the contractor would be tacked onto the duties of the Bureau of Administration.
Still, the ORC was a tough sell. The bill that created the ORC was written late in the session and narrowly passed the state Senate. Some legislators argued that the ORC was being given too heavy a hand with the ability to suspend licenses and vehicle registration. Others argued that the ORC would represent unfair public competition with private debt collectors. But, eventually, the bill passed and Daugaard signed it.
Once money is collected, it gets deposited in the state general fund and is then sent to the agency that is supposed to have it Bollinger said. The 20 percent surcharge also gets deposited into the general fund and is then used to pay the ORC contractor. Bollinger said CGI only gets paid if and when a debt is collected. So far, tax dollars haven’t been used on the program he said.
In states bordering South Dakota, most of which have a state income tax, governments use the threat of not sending all or part of an annual tax return to compel residents who owe debts to pay up. No neighboring states, including Wyoming which similarly does not have an income tax, use the threat of loss of licenses to push debtors to pay up.
In South Dakota, debtors who think they’ve been wrongly targeted or weren’t properly notified that they had a debt can ask for a due-process hearing in front of the state Board of Hearing Examiners.
Bollinger said the hearings are fairly limited in scope, but the referring agency does need to present evidence. From fiscal 2017 through fiscal 2019, debtors requested a total of 46 due-process hearings. In all, 16 hearings were dismissed or withdrawn, according to the ORC 2019 annual report.
Some debtors refuse to pay
Laurie Amundson said she got her first letter from the ORC in 2017. The letter said she owed more than $3,500. She had to call the customer service number listed in the letter to discover that the debt originated from about six years earlier. Her son had been sent to Star Academy, the former Department of Corrections juvenile treatment facility outside of Custer for around seven months.
The boy had been convicted of assaulting Amundson and stealing from her after committing a string of other crimes. At the end of her son’s sentence, Amundson was required to pay $1,200 in restitution for damage her son had caused to a car before he could be released from the detention facility. Amundson said that at the time, no one mentioned anything about an additional $3,500 charge for room and board at the facility.
When Amundson found the ORC’s first notification letter in her mailbox in 2017, she said she was shocked and more than a little angry.
“They told me that if I didn’t pay the bill, they would take my [driver’s] license away,” she said. “I told them, ‘Go ahead, I don’t drive anymore.’”
As a result, her driving privileges have been suspended since 2017. Amundson said the suspension doesn’t affect her much because she stopped driving a while ago and now lives in Vermillion where she can get around fairly well using public transit. The debt Amundson owes has been sent to Texas-based Municipal Services Bureau, the third-party collections contractor the state uses if the ORC’s efforts prove unsuccessful.
Amundson said she has so far refused to pay the bill both because she doesn’t think she should have to pay for a crime that her son committed against her and because she simply can’t afford it. She’s out of work, partially because she suffers from chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Her husband, a truck driver, also owes money to the Internal Revenue Service.
“My life shouldn’t be destroyed for something my son did. My privileges shouldn’t be taken away for something I didn’t even do,” Amundson said.
For now, Amundson said, she’ll keep throwing away her collection letters. She figures there isn’t much more the state can do to compel her to pay.
In the private sector, debt collection agencies are typically hired to collect “bad debt” — money owed but uncollected for 60 or more days — on behalf of the organization to which the money is owed. They are used by everything from credit card companies to hospitals and local government utility departments. Often the collections agency will take up to 45 percent of the money it collects.
A private collections agency is limited in what it can do by the federal Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. Legally, they can’t call at odd hours, contact someone else about the debt, use threats or intimidation or lie to a debtor. Collection agencies can make deals to satisfy debts at lower costs to debtors. They can also work with credit bureaus and limit a person’s access to credit. But that’s about all they can do, short of filing a lawsuit.
South Dakota’s ORC can do nearly everything a private collections agency can do plus ask the Game, Fish & Parks Department to suspend a debtor’s hunting privileges if the debt is over $50. The ORC can ask the Department of Public Safety to suspend a debtor’s driver’s license and ask the Department of Revenue to restrict someone from renewing their license plates.
The 20 percent collection fee wouldn’t cover the cost of legal action, so the ORC doesn’t file lawsuits to recover debts Bollinger said.
Bollinger also said that the ORC cannot negotiate with debtors who have been ordered by South Dakota courts to pay restitution, fines or court fees which can make collections on those debts more difficult. Court-ordered debts also cannot legally be written off, unlike most other debts.
Another problem is that roughly a quarter of the debt that has been referred to the ORC, roughly $20 million, is owed by more than 26,000 people who don’t live in South Dakota. Outside of reporting the debt to credit bureaus and barring someone from getting a non-resident hunting or fishing license, there’s not much the state can do to force a non-resident to pay, Bollinger said.
If a debt hasn’t been collected after the ORC has tried for at least six months and a third-party debt collection contractor has tried for at least one year, the debt can be sent back to the referring agency. The agency can then ask the state Board of Finance to write the debt off of its books.
Debt write-offs have been on the agenda for three Board of Finance meetings so far in 2019. Most of the write-offs were for debts owed to the Department of Transportation for property damage and had been returned to the DOT uncollected. One debt to the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City was written off because the debtor died, while another debt to Black Hills State University in Spearfish was written-off due to a bankruptcy according to documents filed with the Board of Finance.
Ron Woodburn on Tuesday invited the Pierre City Commission and anyone from the community to head to the city’s old outdoor pool on Thursday to celebrate plans to build a $12 million new one.
Woodburn, retired as director of the Capital University Center in Pierre, is an experienced fundraiser and a “passionate about swimming,” Mayor Steve Harding said recently when naming Woodburn to head the fundraising for a new pool.
Woodburn said he’s now passionate about the idea of replacing the old pool, built in 1925, with a new one using $6.5 million in city funds — which will be used for the “base model” including a 25-meter-long pool and new bath house and concession stand — and up to $5.5 million, maybe, in privately funds raised by volunteers that would make it a 50-meter pool and add other features.
Woodburn had eight or nine of the dozen members of the pool planning and fundraising committee at the Commission meeting Tuesday, he said.
“When we get to talking about things, you just can’t help but feel we are going to succeed with this project,” Woodburn told the Commission. “They have some great ideas to move forward.”
To share his enthusiasm, Woodburn invited the public to an open house of sorts at the old pool from 5:30 — 7 p.m., Thursday, Sept. 5.
“Have a root beer float,” Woodburn said. “It will be open for people to look through the bathhouses. You can even walk down into the pool.”
That’s to look at the current facility, perhaps to persuade people who get a look at the old to donate to build a new one.
Problems with the pool’s filtering system and pumps in recent years convinced city leaders the 94-year-old pool must be replaced.
The City Commission in March approved the plan to spend $6.5 million in city money for this, plus support the volunteer committee’s fundraising plans that could add a “lazy river,” and water slides. But it all depends on how much money is raised.
In a little noticed move this spring, the city made one of the first donations, pledging about $400,000 to the fundraising effort, this money beyond the $6.5 million in city funds already authorized. That was just to help kickstart the fundraising campaign, Mayor Harding told the Capital Journal.
Exactly what the new pool will look like will depend on how much money is raised.
That’s why Woodburn wants people to come to the pool on Thursday evening. He said the new pool’s outlines will be taped off to give people an idea how it will be situated, next to the current pool. “We will have a brief program and introduce the architects,” Woodburn said. Dave Burbach of Burbach Aquatics of Platteville, Wisconsin, will be on hand to answer questions, Woodburn said.
The plan is for the old pool to open one more year, summer of 2020, with construction on the new pool beginning in April 2021 with the pool ready to open in summer of 2022.
Mayor Harding, who made this plan one if his main initiatives a year ago and appointed the committee, thanked Woodburn.
“This project is going to affect Pierre and our children and families for years to come, for 50 years,” Harding said. “So this is a major project for our community.”
During its Aug. 22 meeting, the South Dakota 911 Coordination Board unanimously voted to amend a contract for the South Dakota Next Generation 911 Project.
This amendment is in regards to the Rapid City call center with its multiple workstations, dual electrical circuits, cabling and the need to replace or buy more uninterruptible power supply (UPS) units.
A 911 call center for police, firefighting and ambulance services is referred to as a public safety answering point (PSAP). These call centers run 24 hours a day, dispatching emergency services or passing 911 calls on to public or private safety agencies.
The 911 emergency system must be continually updated to keep up with modern technology. Because most 911 systems were originally built using analog rather than digital technologies, call centers across the country need to be upgraded to a digital or Internet-Protocol-based 911 system, which is commonly referred to as Next Generation 911 (NG911).
An Uninterruptible Power Source (UPS) — essentially a battery backup — is an electrical unit that produces emergency power when the building power fails. A UPS is different from auxiliary power or an emergency generator because it offers almost instantaneous protection from power interruptions. The battery run-time of most UPS units is relatively short — often only a few minutes — but gives enough time to start a standby power source or properly shut down a system’s protected programs and equipment.
The 911’s Internet connecting system, a physical point of presence (POP), is operated by the Internet provider themselves. An Internet connecting system that is not operated by the provider is a virtual point of presence (VPOP).
Contract amendment proposal
CenturyLink proposed using the software-defined networks’ existing virtual point of presence instead of building the new call center and its multiple workstations in Rapid City.
Software-defined networking is a system that helps service providers to respond quickly to changing business requirements.
This option would provide back-up repetition and also carrier diversity at no cost to South Dakota. But, the building of the Rapid City call center by CenturyLink would provide only back-up redundancy.
The estimated costs would include dual electrical circuits, upgrading cabling to all call centers and replacing/buying more UPS units for 26 PSAPs (26 back-room UPS and 99 workstation UPS), which would double the number of current UPS units. It was noted that four call centers have emergency battery power in their buildings and therefore do not need individual UPS.
CenturyLink will only charge the state for the quantity noted above. CenturyLink will supply the other half of the units at its own expense.
Two cost proposals were given to help with the grant funding, depending on what costs are approved: A one-time charge of $555,748.44 has been provided for cabling and electrical wiring or a monthly recurring charge of $12,967.45 for the term of the five-year contract. For grant purposes, it has been requested that the electrical contract work be separated from cabling costs. The cost for UPS would be a one-time charge of $51,716.02 or a monthly recurring charge of $1,120.51 for the contract term.
During the Hughes County Commissioners’ Sept. 3 meeting, a public hearing on the county’s 2020 proposed budget saw no audience members with comments, suggestions or questions. The budget could have been adopted then by the commission, but was held off until the deadline of the end of this month. The general fund total of $14,774,715 and the anticipated general fund revenues of $13,960,425 leaves the county looking for more cuts to compensate for a $814,290 deficit. As of the end of June, the county has an always-shifting reserve — or unassigned cash — of approximately $808,000.
Proposals have been made to change the lighting systems in county buildings to LED lighting. The total change-over estimate is over $45,000, but could pay for itself in annual savings in approximately five years. “Something that pays for itself is a good investment,” said Commissioner Randy Vance, “even if it is five, or six, or seven years down the road.” The initial costs could come out of the current building improvement fund. The commission agreed to move ahead with this proposal.
All South Dakota counties may participate in the annual Federal Emergency Management Performance Grant, which pays 50 percent of the emergency management director’s salary and benefits. The grant comes with federally required rules and regulations.
Through the Help America Vote Act, the Office of the Secretary of State is offering the county new election equipment, upgrading to the higher model tabulator and extra Express Votes machines. “Free and new; music to our ears,” said Commissioner Connie Hohn.
The jail department is purchasing a 2008 pickup to be used as a plow for parking lots, as well as to spread salt and sand. The plow and sanding attachments will be acquired separately. The 1997 pickup it replaces will be surplused and sold.
In other business, right of way requests include East River Electric upgrading a power line along Range Road and needing to cross the road three times. Another right of way request is from Venture Communications in its ongoing expansion of fiber optic cable, now in a large area that will include the Tree Farm and Whispering Pines subdivisions.
Also to be discussed further next meeting is the county’s five-year transportation plan. Hughes County currently maintains 722 miles of roadway — 32 miles in the blacktop category, 543 miles of gravel and the rest in various unimproved roads. The county maintains 21 structures under the bridge category, generally having an opening of 20-or-more feet. Of these, seven are classified as culverts, 13 were built before 1970, five are structurally deficient, three bridges are posted below legal limit, and the Medicine Creek bridge has a sufficiency rating of 41 out of 100.
A decision to vacate a portion of Chesley Road in Canning Township will be made next meeting, Sept. 17.
The “County Living” booklet will be mailed to county residents who live outside of town limits. It will also be put on the county website. Commissioner Roger Inman said that this year it would not have mattered what the county did with its culverts, being this year was the second wettest one for the area since 1893. “It seems people have forgotten the country can be wet/muddy, be extremely dry, and people spray.” said inman, who has received numerous complaints about roads and other aspects of country living. “You are going to have flooding, bad roads, culverts that aren’t big enough, and other difficulties. It says in the pamphlet that you should check with the county before buying.” The commissioners recalled a ‘pond’ in the county which had silted in, then was actually built on. The pamphlet has been updated, mostly with information on section lines and law enforcement.
Because of a state-wide County Commissioners Convention Sept. 16-17, the Hughes County Commission next meets Tuesday, Sept. 17, in the courthouse’s commission room, starting at 5:30 p.m.