No More Mr. Nice Guy! Pat Burgett has a thick skin as Washtenaw Trial Court collections coordinator

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By Frank Weir

Legal News

Pat Burgett? No more Mr. Nice Guy!

Burgett, currently the collections coordinator for the Washtenaw County Trial Court, recently celebrated an astounding 40 years of service to the county, most of it as a probation officer.

And that doesn't even include the two years of service to the county as a part-time janitor while attending Eastern Michigan University.

Burgett actually retired once, in March of 2007 after 35 and a half years in probation.

"But I was climbing the walls being retired," he said."I was too young, had too little to do and too much energy. Of course I had home projects I could do but I began to put stuff off, something that I never did before. I was just not doing much."

After a year and a half, Burgett thought a part-time job would reinvigorate him but he saw the collections coordinator posting on the county website and thought he might have a shot, although it was fulltime.

In the new position, Burgett is charged with collecting court costs, attorney fees, and victim's rights fund and restitution from convicted felons. Court costs and attorney fees go directly into the Trial Court budget.

"The Trial Court established this new position because courts are trying to maximize revenue just like everyone else so as soon as someone is sentenced, I corner them and get them to make an agreement as to how much time they need to pay everything off or how much they can pay every month.

"Ideally, I like to have assessments paid in full within a year or less. Of course in accordance with Michigan court rules, all financial assessments are due at the time of sentencing. If they claim that they are unable to pay I will encourage them to make some calls to see who can help them be it family, friends, whatever."

Washtenaw is one of only about five counties in the state to have a Circuit Court collections program and Burgett's efforts were the only ones to result last year in an increase in collections over the year before.

The SCAO asked him to write up how he does it and his immediate answer was short and sweet:

"I told them you gotta be willing to be an SOB."

Burgett is not a bit ashamed to admit that "being a jerk comes surprisingly easily to me. I can turn into one at the drop of an eyelash. I don't have to work hard at it at all. I've been dealing with lawyers and criminals for so long, it just came naturally."

He noted a recent felon who tried his best by hollering and leaning well over the top of Burgett's desk. Burgett leaned toward his client, not away, and they went nose-to-nose, eyeball-to-eyeball. With that bit of nonsense over with, Burgett was able to get back to making arrangements for the client to make payments.

And then there was Prague.

An avid world traveler, he's visited 21 countries, Burgett was in Prague when a uniformed policeman motioned to him and his wife Ellen.

In angry gesticulations and broken English, the policeman pointed to a sign seemingly having to do with excessive noise.

Burgett was quite adamant that he didn't think he or his wife had done anything wrong but the policeman was insistent and demanded a payment on the spot.

"Alright, then take me to the police station," Burgett finally stated aggressively in the same tone of voice the policeman was directing at him.

"He backed down. If they see that they can't intimidate you, they always back down. I strongly suspect he was attempting to shake me down for money figuring I'd be intimidated and would just pay him to avoid any difficulties. That didn't happen."

Burgett is enjoying his collections work particularly because he can see the results of his efforts.

"It's easy to measure success since we are talking hard numbers here. I can see month to month how I'm doing. Using a spreadsheet, I can track payments by case number. When a payment comes in, I enter it into the spreadsheet."

He notes that he has dealt with 1,945 individuals since beginning the job in December of 2008 and has brought in a whopping $1,779,997.

If clients don't comply with the initial plan they set up with Burgett as they begin probation, Burgett contacts them and let's them know the consequences.

"I send them a letter telling them I will file a show cause motion. If they don't make a payment before the due date then I schedule a show cause hearing.

"And if they choose not to show up at the hearing, then I have to issue a warrant for their arrest. Typically an additional 20 percent is added to their balance if a warrant is issued."

His approach often results in last-minute calls from clients trying to work something out, Burgett said. Typically, he will ask them to pay an amount after which he will recall the warrant and provide the client with the paperwork to avoid arrest.

"I normally get one or two of those a month," he said.

Considering his work in the probation department and now in collections, Burgett has had ample opportunity to reflect on how criminals differ from the general population.

"A large percentage feel that they are powerless. They sit back and let things happen to them and they feel success at any endeavor is a matter of chance.

"Their conception of making things happen for themselves, being the masters of their own destiny, is as foreign to them as speaking Sanskrit is to me."

And Burgett never ceases to be amazed "how many times a mother comes with the felon and does all the talking. Parents, particularly mothers, are still willing to support and take care of the financial needs of this person. It's a classic example of enabling continued irresponsibility."

Parents will often side with their child in saying that the conviction only occurred because the police had it in for them.

"I seem to hear this rationale more frequently than any attitude of wanting to kick the kid's rear end all over the county," he said.

A Manchester native, Burgett earned an undergraduate degree and a master's degree in guidance and counseling. Later he pursued another degree in accounting and finance.

Daughter Vivian is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in creative writing.

Both Burgett and his wife have experience in writing. Ellen is a technical writer for Thomson Reuters.

Published: Thu, Dec 22, 2011

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