Best Practices Awards: Williamson County

Financial Literacy Program offers driving defendants an alternative to paying fine

By Jody Seaborn

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Sometimes a program proves its value so well that it attracts attention not only locally or regionally but beyond. Williamson County's Financial Literacy Program is one such program.

Developed by Precinct 3 Justice of the Peace Evelyn McLean, the program aims to break the cycle of certain repeat traffic citations by emphasizing education over punishment. It allows defendants ticketed for driving without a license, driving with an invalid license or driving with no car insurance to take a free, one-hour financial literacy class that offers general spending and budgeting tips rather than the paying of a fine.

In recognition, the Texas Association of Counties (TAC) named Williamson County one of six 2020 County Best Practices Award recipients.

TAC wasn't alone. In March, the National Association of Counties (NACo) recognized the program with one of its 2021 Achievement Awards, which honor innovations in county government.

Working with the Financial Literacy Coalition of Central Texas, and supported by an initial $32,000 grant from Experian, McLean implemented the financial literacy class after frequently seeing defendants plead guilty to a qualifying traffic violation whose fine they were unable to pay. Because of financial hardship, they would continue to drive without a license or insurance, only to owe the court more when they received another citation.

McLean wanted to give first-time offenders the opportunity to learn how to improve their financial stability. Her hope is that the program will reduce each defendant’s chances of becoming a repeat offender while improving public safety.

"It is truly an honor to receive this award," McLean said of TAC's Best Practices Award. "And while I am proud that our court was chosen for this prestigious award, I am most proud of the Financial Literacy Program and the positive impact it has made on the participants who have come through our court.

"We are educating individuals to do the right things with their money, which leads to better financial well-being and ultimately has a positive impact on our community," she said.

Since the program began in April 2019, 2,073 people have requested the financial literacy class as of Sept. 16 and 1,343 cases have been dismissed. The program's success has prompted inquiries from several justices of the peace offices around the state and led Williamson County Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Edna Staudt and the Williamson County Emerging Adult Program to adapt it for their own use.

McLean considers the Financial Literacy Program easily replicable. She says her office will provide the PowerPoint presentation used in the class to any county interested in the program.

"Dedication to improving lives and serving the public runs through Williamson County's Financial Literacy Program," TAC Executive Director Susan M. Redford said. "We hope this award inspires other counties to explore new solutions to similar problems."

Every other year, TAC's County Best Practices Awards Program recognizes noteworthy innovations and solutions that increase efficiency, improve operations or overcome obstacles facing county governments. These innovations and solutions help Texas counties better serve their residents. The best of them also serve as models that other counties can shape to fit their particular needs.

2022 County Best Practices Award Nominations

The application process for TAC's 2022 Best Practices Awards program will open Jan. 1 and nominations will be accepted until March 31. Visit www.county.org/bestpractices to learn more about the awards program and to find information about past recipients, including a list of 2020 award recipients.