Career capper: Court's collections coordinator closes out county service

By Frank Weir
Legal News

The never soft-spoken Pat Burgett recently ended a long career with the local court community retiring as the Washtenaw Trial Court's Collections Coordinator.

He began that job in 2008 after his first retirement as a county probation officer.

"My first day on the job with the probation department was November 11, 1971," Burgett recalled. "I was 22 and had degrees in sociology and psychology, so I was confident that I would be correcting all the wrongs of the country and reduce the crime rate through kindness and understanding."

He was in for a harsh and sobering realization.

"Not too many years passed before I realized that there was a good percentage of criminals who simply saw kindness and understanding as attributes that would allow manipulation. I consequently dealt with my clientele with far less leniency."

And that new approach carried over to his collections job. Most court personnel are familiar with stories of rather irate and vocal convicted felons expressing their displeasure in court hallways with Burgett's insistence that arrangements be made to pay their fines and costs. Deputies have been known to investigate what the noisy ruckus is all about and it was clear that Burgett wasn't afraid to give as strongly as he got. He refused to be intimidated and manipulated, and nose-to-nose office confrontations were plentiful in his collections work.

What he may have lacked in sheer muscle and bulk, he made up for with moxie, show causes, and arrest warrants. The law, after all, was on his side and his customers knew it.

The path to his collections job began with his retirement from probation in 2007 after almost 36 years, characteristically contentious.

"By that time, my disrespect for mid- and upper level management of the state corrections department had progressed to full-blown disdain," he said.

Burgett had encouraged clientele to voice their disappointment with his departure to one mid-level manager in particular: "Admittedly, this was a measure to harass, or as they say, 'get his goat.'" The manager then decided to bring disciplinary action against him, even though he was no longer an employee. Another manager suggested there was no point to the exercise and that was the end of it.

It wasn't long before Burgett got restless.

"I was retired for 18 months by which time it was obvious that I had too much energy and not enough to do. I discovered the collections coordinator posting after searching a site pertaining to tax return preparation. This seemed the perfect fit for me and I had the good fortune to obtain the job," Burgett noted.

Burgett was genuinely elated at securing the newly-created position.

"Although I had more impact in making the world a better place as a probation officer, by influencing the separation from society of those who would do us serious and continued harm, I preferred the collections job primarily because the working environment was much better. I was given the freedom to decide how best to do my job. Since I was dealing with money, there was a unit of measurement to determine progress and I both respected and liked the court administrator and judges all of whom I had known for 10 to 35 years, and, most of all, I enjoyed the camaraderie of colleagues, many of whom I had known for years. There is a certain very jaded humor amongst those of us who work for the courts that I very much understand and have disseminated as well. I've never felt alone when it came to being sharp tongued."

Burgett said when he began the job, Court Administrator Dan Dwyer told him the court would like to see revenue increase by $50,000 the first year to justify the job continuing.

"Revenue increased by just under $153,000 that first year and in the next five years of my employment, revenue increased each year except for one," Burgett noted.

He estimated that the total he collected over his 6.5 years was $1,684,480, which includes restitution payments, not just money that the county was able to keep.

Burgett's office on the second floor of the county courthouse was located near several courtrooms and soon became a drop-in place for prisoner transport deputies, defense attorneys and prosecutors "waiting for verdicts, for court to start or they would stop in to chat particularly if it involved exchanging information on a recent overseas trip that they or I had made."

By May of this year, Burgett decided that he had had enough. His caseload had grown to 970 cases and was unwieldy.

"The key to success was to stay on top of those who had demonstrated a reluctance to pay and I was no longer able to do this."

In addition, success was always determined by the willingness of judges to support sanctions, usually financial, for those who refused to pay.

"More than one person suggested to me that I brought in more money for Washtenaw County than any other single individual and this is probably true. In addition, I served the local criminal justice community for just over 42 years. There is a list of all the circuit court judges, totaling 18, and I have worked for 14. If I can include the flowerbed/container plant maintenance that I did for Judge Timothy Connors for the first four years of my collections job, that would make it 15 judges."

Burgett said that his two favorite avocations are gardening and travel.

"I'm not one to lay on the beach and consume fancy mixed drinks. I prefer to explore historical sights particularly involving the Middle Ages with which I have had a fascination since childhood.

"I would rather walk where Charlemagne walked than drink where Sinatra drank," he stated succinctly.

Indeed, his Facebook profile photo shows Burgett in the visage of a snarling crusader complete with shield and broad sword. It beautifully fits his demeanor, at least on occasion.

Published: Thu, Aug 20, 2015