Committee: Municipal courts need review in Springfield’s budget crisis

8:02 a.m. Tuesday, July 12, 2016 Politics

The Clark County Municipal Court should find ways to increase revenues and reduce costs as Springfield faces a budget crunch, according to an independent committee that examined the city’s finances.

While the resident-led panel recommended the courts take part in a bench-marking and performance study for the city’s operations, they acknowledged the challenge created because the city is required to pay for the courts, but has little control over the budget.

Judges and the clerk of courts are elected officials who decide how many employees they need and at what salary.

“We’ve got to look at, since municipal court is funded by us, not the judges themselves but the operations … I think that has to be looked at as a part of our budget issues,” Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland said.

The city’s total expenditures for the municipal court have increased about 45 percent — from $2.9 million in 2000 to nearly $4.2 million in 2015. That currently represent more than 11 percent of the city’s general fund expenses, up from 10 percent 15 years ago.

The city hasn’t really explored options like reducing the number of judges, combining the common pleas and municipal clerk offices or increasing court fees, Copeland said, because that’s all ultimately up to the judges.

“It’s not simple or easy for the political jurisdiction to tell judges how they should do their business,” Copeland said.

The Community Financial Advisory Committee was chosen earlier this year to analyze the city’s budget, which has a projected $930,000 deficit this year.

Its final report encourages the city to look at every part of its operation for savings before asking for any tax increases, committee member David Estrop said.

“Before they went to the voters, the needed to make sure their house was in order,” he said.

The city and Chamber of Greater Springfield have agreed to pay for such a study this summer and the city has taken the first step toward putting a 0.4 percent income tax increase on the November ballot.

The committee recommended that the courts be included in the study to identify savings opportunities, but those office holders don’t have to agree to take part, City Manager Jim Bodenmiller said.

“I’m hopeful that they’ll cooperate,” he said. “We ask for their cooperation cutting costs when possible.”

Municipal Clerk of Courts Guy Ferguson and Judges Thomas Trempe and Eugene Nevius said they’ve made concessions in the past to keep costs down, including foregoing raises for their staffs in line with city pay freezes and holding off on hiring additional probation officers they’d like to have.

“We haven’t really added any probation positions with the exception of those that are grant funded,” Trempe said.

They also said some financial decisions are beyond even their control, as many court costs are set by state laws and it would be inappropriate to raise punitive fines to make a profit.

“We’re not like the gas company that can just raise the price whenever we want,” Nevius said.

The city meets with the judges and clerks every year during the budgeting process, Bodenmiller said, and they’ve been able to work out compromises when necessary.

“We’re certainly mindful of the responsibility to be good stewards of the public’s money,” Trempe said.

The Springfield News-Sun also reached out to Judge Denise Moody but she deferred to Trempe and Nevius for comment.

Last year, the News-Sun examined how declining caseloads at both the municipal and common pleas levels compared to the size of the courts’ staffs and budgets.

Although the number of cases being handled has declined since 2000 — by more than 50 percent in some categories like small claims — the municipal judges’ staff has held steady at 35 full-time employees. The judges’ budget is up from about $1.7 million in 2000, but has been fairly flat, between $2.4 million and $2.5 million, since 2007.

Ferguson’s staff has shrunk by 15 percent to about 20 employees and the clerk’s budget has increased by 30 percent over that time period, according to the city.

“I’ve always run an efficient operation,” Ferguson said.

At least eight Ohio counties have combined common pleas and municipal courts with just one clerk overseeing operations. Among them is Miami County, where leaders last year said they are saving about $75,000 plus benefits annually by not having a second elected clerk.

Merging the two court clerk positions may be a viable option, according to Melissa Tuttle, a local attorney who’s challenging incumbent Ron Vincent to be clerk of common pleas court. Vincent couldn’t be reached for comment.

“If it’s what the community wants … if it will save the county money, I will support it,” she said.

Nevius sees the responsibilities of the two jobs as too different for merging to make sense. He and Trempe also said the county’s caseloads haven’t declined enough to warrant decreasing the number of judges.

The advisory committee also recommended increasing fees or fines to create more revenue and offset costs, but the judges said that’s not feasible in many situations.

“A fine is a punishment for a criminal offense,” Trempe said. “The consideration of revenue is never given to that.”

Court costs are set by the state for the most part, they said, and chunks of each payment go back to various state organizations, leaving only a percentage as revenue for the city.

Another issue is that many in the community aren’t able to pay the current court fees and fines, Nevius said, so increasing the costs would only decrease collection rates.

Ferguson wasn’t able to provide the current collection rate for the municipal court.

“We should maybe looking at doing things a little differently,” Clark County Commissioner John Detrick said of examining the court structure and budgets. “I wouldn’t be above exploring it, subject to the approval of the judges.”

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