- Michael Cooper Staff Writer
A local committee will examine consolidating the municipal and county clerk of courts offices — a proposal that was recently pulled from the state budget bill.
The Clark County Criminal Justice Council discussed in a contentious meeting Thursday the way the proposal was submitted with state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield, and state Sen. Bob Hackett, R-London.
Koehler’s proposal 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. The 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.
“In hindsight, it probably should’ve been done differently,” Hackett said. “The good news is that the discussion has started.”
The Chamber of Greater Springfield called a meeting in February to discuss the issue with Koehler, Hackett and Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland, Koehler said, but Copeland declined to attend.
The two clerks offices are budgeted to spend about $3.2 million to operate this year with a total of 37 employees. A combined clerk’s office could save the city about $300,000 to $400,000 annually, Koehler told the Springfield News-Sun earlier this month.
The plan could be re-introduced in the Senate, but Hackett said he doesn’t plan to proceed until more discussions take place.
Springfield is willing to discuss and study the idea to see if it’s a good idea in terms of economy, efficiency and providing service to the people, Springfield Law Director Jerry Strozdas.
It makes sense to consolidate offices at the end of terms, Hackett said, but even with a recent income tax increase, the city still faces significant budget issues once the increase expires in 2020. The city’s finances mean the process should begin soon, he said.
“All I’m asking for people is to look at the numbers,” Hackett said.
A performance audit by Philadelphia-based Public Financial Management completed last October showed the city could save money by combining the offices, Koehler said. The report showed 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.
The report was paid for by both the city of Springfield and the chamber and the court system wasn’t involved, said Judge Thomas Capper, presiding judge of the Clark County Common Pleas Court.
“That’s the basis for which Representative Koehler puts in a 4,700-page budget biennial bill four days before it gets submitted,” Capper said.
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, Capper said.
Local judges also disputed the numbers in the performance audit completed last year, which said caseloads have decreased at the municipal court, as well as the number of employees at the municipal clerk’s office.
“There’s a lot that’s inaccurate (with the report),” Capper said.
Local judges and other officials were unaware of the amendment in the budget proposal until they were contacted by the Springfield News-Sun, he said.
“I had no comment, but I had no clue what he was talking about,” Capper said. “Guy Ferguson doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Nobody in this room knows what he’s talking about, except maybe one or two, and if they knew, shame on them. … What happened was wrong. That’s not how you do business.”
It’s hard to find credibility when people try to slide legislation into bills behind closed doors without discussion, he said. If someone tries to do that, all anyone is going to believe is that that person has “sold their soul” to a special interest group, he said.
Koehler has been listening to the wrong people, Municipal Court Judge Gene Nevius said.
“The chamber was driving this wagon and the chamber is the primary person to blame for this,” he said. “The people in this room are the people you need to be talking with before you go forward with any kind of legislation.”
Chamber Board President Jim Lagos didn’t attend the meeting but was listening to portions of it by phone. He didn’t hear the comment from Nevius and declined to comment on it.
If the country suffers a significant recession, Springfield could face another deficit in 2020, Lagos said after the meeting.
“Something has to be done,” Lagos said. “If the city goes into a deficit in 2020, that causes lots of job losses and lots of problems. The time to do something is now, in 2017.”
Koehler was bothered by the accusation of the involvement of special interest groups because that’s not how he operates, he said.
Koehler introduced legislation that was signed by Gov. John Kasich last year to provide up to $1 million for local governments to study consolidation through the Ohio Auditor’s Office, he said, but the city and county have yet to use the process.
The council will create a subcommittee to study the consolidation of the clerks offices, Capper said. It won’t examine the combination of any other office or departments, he said.
Koehler suggested the subcommittee examine the financial numbers of the consolidation through the auditor’s program. The National Center for State Courts could also be involved, Capper said. The subcommittee will provide the council with a recommendation at the next meeting in August.
It’s inconceivable that state lawmakers who have little to no understanding of how the court functions on a day-to-day basis would attempt to make such dramatic changes and not consult the people whose work would be interrupted, Clark County Municipal Court Judge Denise Moody said.
“It’s incomprehensible that they were not part of any meeting that would dismantle, destroy and completely interrupt the daily operations of those courts,” Moody said.
The amendment was included in the budget a month before it was released to the public the first time it was published, Koehler said. It wasn’t introduced at the last minute, he said. He apologized to Moody and to the council for the way it was handled.
“It was done in the very first submittal of the budget so that the conversation could begin,” he said. “It’s begun a conversation.”