GONZALES — Nearly two years since a $1.17 million accounting error was found that had been unintentionally depriving funds from Ascension Parish’s misdemeanor and small claims court, the parish court’s judge says a long-term payback plan with parish government is working well.
Ascension Parish Judge Marilyn Lambert said her court’s finances “are in good shape.”
Her court in Gonzales ended fiscal 2013-14 with a $1.42 million surplus, having added $41,568 to the bottom line in the financial year ended June 30, a new annual audit shows.
About $1.3 million of the surplus was not restricted in use, but much of it was not cash but money owed to the court for the years of misplaced fines.
For seven years, the Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office had mistakenly put the court’s share of bench warrant fines — $60 each — into a similarly named fund for the 23rd Judicial District in Ascension. That state district court, which has different judges, handles felony cases, some misdemeanors, larger civil claims and other matters.
Lambert said the mistake was found in the summer of 2013 after her staff started looking into why her fund seemed to be short of money.
Once the error, which dated back to 2006, was discovered, the parish, district judges and Lambert agreed that she would stop making $7,500 monthly payments to the 23rd Judicial District fund for some of her receptionists’ salary and benefits and phone bills until the fines were repaid.
“We worked out this deal. It’s kind of a painless way to pay it back where they’re not having come up with a huge lump sum,” Lambert said.
The payback plan is expected to take 15 years, she said.
For the full fiscal year in 2013-14, not paying those monthly costs saved Lambert’s court $78,503. Overall, including savings from part of fiscal 2012-13, the payback plan has saved Lambert’s court $115,548, the annual audit says.
All of that savings has been counted against the original $1.17 million in misallocated fines owed to her court.
The remaining nearly $1.06 million still owed, which is a credit as opposed to cash on hand, made up the bulk of Lambert’s surplus by the end of fiscal 2013-14, the audit says.
In addition to the savings on cost, the court also saw its fines and court cost revenues increase $183,856 between fiscal 2012-13 and 2013-14, from $316,112 to $499,968, the audit says.
The Sheriff’s Office began directing the previously misallocated fines to Lambert’s court fund in July 2013, the start of the 2013-14 fiscal year.
The audit did cite Lambert for failing to adjust her budget to account for $54,327 in higher than expected general fund expenses.
State law says final budgeted expenses, revenues or fund balances cannot exceed actual amounts by more than 5 percent. Lambert said the unbudgeted increase stemmed from a court receptionist’s salary and benefits that she had agreed with the 23rd JDC judges to cover and part of the cost of a new security door.
Lambert said she neglected to tell her accountant to include those costs in the budget, calling the oversight a fluke that didn’t endanger the court’s finances.
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