The Clark County Criminal Justice Council voted to no longer examine consolidating two local clerk of courts offices, due at least in part due to the cost to combine computer systems.
Council members also questioned the Chamber of Greater Springfield’s motivation for asking local government leaders to move forward with the consolidation.
The majority of council members voted in favor of ending the discussion at Thursday’s meeting. Springfield City Law Director Jerry Strozdas and City Commissioner Dan Martin voted against the resolution.
“There’s nothing to indicate it would save any money,” Municipal Court Judge Eugene Nevius said.
A committee set up earlier this summer to study a possible consolidation recommending ending the discussion for multiple reasons, including concerns about who would pay for a consolidation study and neither clerk wanting to handle the others’ duties at the present time, said committee chairman John Butz, also president of the Clark County Bar Association.
The cost to integrate the two offices’ computer systems would also likely outweigh the savings gained by eliminating a clerk’s salary, he said. It’s unclear how much it would cost to combine the two computer systems, Butz said.
It’s unclear if the consolidation would save money, Strozdas said. He wants to see the National Center for State Courts to study it and other offices, he said.
“I don’t think any of us know,” Strozdas said. “I would like a more thorough look at those before we decide.”
The study would cost a lot of money, Butz said, but no one has the extra funding to back it.
It’s unclear how much savings would be created by a consolidation, Butz said.
State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, told the Springfield News-Sun a combined clerk’s office could save the city about $300,000 to $400,000 annually.
The two clerks offices are budgeted to spend about $3.2 million to operate this year with a total of 37 employees.
A proposal made by Koehler earlier this year would have eliminated the office of the Municipal Clerk of Courts in Clark County and roll its duties into the Clark County Clerk of Common Pleas Courts Office.
An amendment was included as part of the House budget bill in late April — without the knowledge of local judges, city commissioners or Municipal Clerk of Courts Guy Ferguson. It was later pulled.
After a contentious meeting in May between local elected officials, a committee began examining the consolidation of the clerks’ offices earlier this summer.
A performance audit by Philadelphia-based Public Financial Management completed last October says the city could save money by combining the offices. The report says the Clark County Municipal Court and Common Pleas Clerk of Courts combined have more staff and more general fund expenditures than other comparable communities.
The report cited several reasons to consolidate, including declining caseloads, avoiding duplication of fixed costs and improving efficiency. The audit recommended examining a staff reduction at the court and the clerk’s office, including a possible study from the National Center for State Courts.
Local judges have disputed the numbers in the performance audit, which said caseloads have decreased at the municipal court. In 1990, the overall caseload at the Clark County Municipal Court was 25,508, according to the Ohio Supreme Court. The numbers were 27,191 in 2005 and about 26,633 in 2015 — the most recent statistics available.
Despite the recent passage of the city’s five-year income tax increase, Chamber Board President Jim Lagos told the council if the country suffers a significant recession, Springfield could face another deficit in 2020, which could lead to job losses locally.
“The city is going to hit a brick wall,” Lagos said. “It’s a very serious matter in terms of long-term finances for the city. It affects everybody in this room whether you’re city, county, whatever. It’s an important issue. Something has to give at some point.”
Cuts must be made some place for the city to sustain its current budget, Lagos said. The consolidation of the two clerks offices is one of a dozen incremental steps that must be completed to help the city’s long-term financial situation, he said.
“I view this as a slow-moving avalanche,” Lagos said. “I guarantee you that at some point, the avalanche is going to hit.”
The city is currently not in financial distress, Nevius said, but could be in a few years. If the chamber would do its job, he said that would mean more companies coming to town generating enough income taxes to save the city.
“Why don’t you get off your butt as chairman of the chamber and get those jobs here, then there won’t be job cuts, there will be job improvements,” Nevius said.
Consolidation has become a popular concept to save money, Common Pleas Court Judge Tom Capper said, but it’s not for everyone. Of 88 counties in Ohio, currently six counties have combined clerks offices, he said.
“If you ask all six of them, half of them would tell you they regret doing it in the first place,” Capper said. “That’s my opinion.”
Capper asked Lagos if the chamber’s goal should be to tell local government how it should operate or if there is another outside motivation.
“You know that’s the implication,” Capper said.
The chamber needs to have a city and county government that are financially stable for the long term, Lagos said. Without it, the city will face another deficit, he said.
The criminal justice council was put together in the early 1990s to examine how the court system operates in Clark County, Nevius said, and doesn’t need someone from the outside telling them what to do.
“We know best how to evaluate what we do and we know best how to make the solutions,” he said. “Don’t bring somebody from 50 miles away with a briefcase and call them an expert and tell us what to do. That’s ridiculous.”
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By the numbers
25,508: Total caseload at the Clark County Municipal Court in 1990.
27,191: Total caseload at the municipal court in 2005.
26,633: Total caseload at the municipal court in 2015.
Staying with the story
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about possible changes to staffing levels at the Municipal Court and Clerk of Courts office since 2015, including recent stories examining caseloads and budget cuts by the city.