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ONLY ON KOLD: Tucson's missing money

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

The city of Tucson's owed about $170 million in unpaid fines and court costs over the last decade.

Tucson News Now obtained documents that show the amount of money, and which people and companies are the biggest violators.

We showed one of the documents to Kevin Lindsay Rich, who went to Tucson City Court to pay his fine. He was surprised at the amount, saying "God that is a lot of money. I'm very surprised. I really am. Basically you're just paying a little money for being responsible. If you make a mistake, own up to it and pay it."

In the last ten years, we're talking about almost $230 million in unpaid fines and fees for misdemeanor offenses, civil and criminal traffic offenses, parking tickets, water violations, and code violations.

Tucson City Court Administrator Chris Hale says that when any fine is paid, some goes to the state. But the majority goes into the city's general fund. He says,"a general rule that we follow is that 50 percent of the people that are found responsible or owe a debt will pay it. 25 percent will pay with some nudging. And the final 25 percent...just, we'll probably never collect on it."

Tucson's court does better than all of the city courts in the state but one when it comes to actually getting people to pay. They send delinquent accounts to a collection system, and the collectors get about 36% of all those unpaid fines. That's $62 million over the 10 years. Still, the city lost out on $167 million since 2004.

In the case of many of the biggest violators, the court simply loses track of the people or businesses. Hale says it's hard to keep up-to-date with where people live. "In 2013 we had approximately 8,600 pieces of returned mail. That costs us $4,000 dollars to send out. Only to have it come back in a day or two saying, 'bad address.'"

So we wanted to see just how hard it is to find some of the violators. We obtained the lists of people and companies who owe the most money for all kinds of offenses. We tried to find people, but found disconnected phone numbers, and couldn't even find records of some people and companies.  We also went around town looking for people and businesses where we thought we had a good address, but we came up empty.

The fact is, the city's still chasing some fines from the late 1990s. Rich wants people who are in Tucson and can afford to pay to think about the rest of us. He says, "It's not just about you. It's about everybody."

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