Since Eckels' election in November 1994, however, the argument in favor of the county attorney has carried less weight. A political and territorial dispute has raged between the Republican judge and the Democratic county attorney, a dispute that has lately taken on overtones of a class war.
In the minds of Driscoll and others opposed to privatized collection, it's the poor who don't pay their taxes on time. The penalties applied to cover the fees of a private tax collection firm usually hit those who can least afford it, Driscoll and his supporters insist.
But private collectors such as Heard, Goggan -- which collects delinquent taxes for more taxing entities in Texas than any other law firm -- disagree with that assessment. The Harris County commissioners evidently agree with Heard, Goggan. They've joined with the law firm to hire Vinson and Elkins to defend the tax collection contract. So far, Heard, Goggan has paid some $100,000 to Vinson and Elkins to support its right to collect as many fees as it can get.
Though Eckels hopes for a reasonable solution to the Smith lawsuit, it seems unlikely that, given the politics and the money at stake, any resolution will come about peacefully. And, of course, Heard, Goggan's contract presents some formidable obstacles as well.
As assistant county attorney Marsha Floyd notes, "[Heard, Goggan's] contract with the county says that anything they get paid, they keep.