Judges: Proposed Springfield court budget plan illegal

The city of Springfield has proposed using court costs to help pay for the judicial system budget as faces cuts across the board.


The city of Springfield wants the Clark County Municipal Court judges and clerk to agree to use about $450,000 from its revenue-generating funds — such as court costs — to pay for its operations, but the judges said that’s illegal.

City leaders disagree and believe their proposal to cover budget cuts to the judicial system is legal.

City commissioners voted recently to cut about $800,000 from its general fund, including $269,000 from the municipal courts and $182,000 from the clerk of courts about a month after voters rejected an income tax increase.

RELATED: Divided Springfield commission passes budget

But the three municipal judges sent city commissioners and City Manager Jim Bodenmiller a letter last week saying they expect their budget to be funded as requested, without any cuts.

Commissioners then voted this week to approve the use of about $450,000 from the court’s Future Facilities, Special Projects and Municipal Court Improvement funds at Tuesday’s meeting.

“We wanted to make sure they knew they had the right to do it,” Mayor Warren Copeland said. “The ball’s in their court as far as fighting is concerned. They would have to take legal action against us and we’ll defend ourselves.”

However two of the three judges said it’s illegal to use the money from those funds for anything other than their stated purposes. The third couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday.

The money in the funds is from court costs accumulated over the years, Springfield Law Director Jerry Strozdas said.

The orders for the court costs say the money can only be spent with the judges’ approval, he said. The city commissioner must appropriate the money because its held by the city’s finance department, Strozdas said.

City staff members have had preliminary discussions with Judge Thomas Trempe about using the money for operations, he said.

READ MORE: Springfield fire, police station closures may hurt response times

Strozdas believes the money can be used for operations if the judges authorize it, he said after examining the statutes and court orders related to the funds.

“We’ve done what I think we need to do and what I think is appropriate to do to make it clear we want to cooperate,” Strozdas said. “The way that we propose to do that is by using some of these funds other than the city’s general fund.”

Some of the funds don’t have enough money to cover the city’s 10 percent cut to the court’s budget, Judge Eugene Nevius said.

“We’re not going to sign that over anyways and we’ve told them that,” he said.

It’s fair for Springfield leaders to ask the courts to take cuts when the city’s cutting from everywhere, including overtime for police and firefighters, Copeland said.

The cuts could lead to job losses at both court and clerk’s offices, city leaders have said. The municipal court has about 35 employees who are paid from its general fund, including in probation, security and judicial staff. The clerk’s office has about 20 workers.

The court requested about $2.68 million for next year, while the clerk’s office requested about $1.83 million.

The future facilities fund is designated solely for future building projects for the court, Trempe said. It has about $560,000, he said.

DETAILS: Springfield leaders want to cut $451K from municipal court, clerk

“Legally, we can’t use it for anything except building,” Nevius said. “To tell us we can use that for something else is just a wrong destination.”

The special projects fund is used train people and buy extra equipment, such as safety vests for security employees, Trempe said. The fund has about $350,000.

“They’re not just there to be used at the whim of the judges or the city commission for that matter,” Trempe said. “The court is of the opinion that those special funds can only be used for the purposes for which they were created.”

The court has been cooperative and willing partners, Nevius said, including freezing wages and not filling vacant positions.

“We’ve done everything we can to work with them,” Nevius said. “For them to make us the bad guys in this picture because of their mismanagement is wrong.”

The judges and city staff have met to discuss budget issues in the past, Trempe said, but they’ve yet to meet to discuss the 2017 cuts.

“This year, we didn’t get any kind of request,” Trempe said. “We were just told our budget would be cut by 10 percent. … We’re not a city department. We’re a separate and co-equal branch of the government. We need to have an appropriation that allows us to ensure the sufficient operation of the court. We’ll take whatever steps are necessary to (ensure that).”

EARLIER COVERAGE: Springfield committee: Municipal courts need budget review

Clark County Clerk of Courts Guy Ferguson didn’t respond to requests for comment.

If the judges request isn’t fulfilled, the court can file a writ of mandamus that’s used to command a government agency to perform its duty to provide reasonable and necessary funds for the administration of the court’s business, according to the Ohio Revised Code.

A municipal court may apply for a writ in any higher court, if needed. The court can use its powers to enforce orders by punishing public officials with contempt of court, including being jailed until the authority complies with the order, the code says.

“I would say that it’s fairly rare,” said Louis Tobin, acting director of the Ohio Judicial Conference. “Our judges do their best to work this out with their funding authorities before it gets to the point of filing one of these writs.”

The Ohio Judicial Conference is a state agency that provides assistance to the judicial branch, independent of the Ohio Supreme Court. The conference has a membership of about 722 judges.

The Ohio Supreme Court offers a mediation service, Tobin said, which the conference courts and municipalities to use.

He hasn’t heard of similar cuts happening in other areas of the state.

“We encourage judges to be responsible about their budgets, particularly during periods of financial hardship,” Tobin said. “Courts are constitutionally and statutorily mandated to do certain things. A lot of their budget is often non-discretionary.”

Municipalities often treat courts like another department, Tobin said, rather than an independent branch of government. Courts must have the ability to request an order when reasonable, he said, and have the necessary funds to administer justice and perform constitutional duties. The conference has a policy against using court costs to pay for operations because it can lead to corruption, Tobin said.

If a writ is filed, a funding authority can file for a writ of prohibition against the court’s ordered budget, showing proof the court order is unreasonable.

“Situations like this do arise,” Tobin said. “Courts have to be able to preserve and protect their own existence. They don’t have their own funding stream, other than nominal court costs and filing fees. … The majority of the time, courts and funding authorities are able to work these things out before it gets to the writ of mandamus level. But sometimes they just can’t work it out.”

Staying with the story

The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about cuts to the city budget since they were first announced last month, including stories digging into the possible effects on a local tourism agency and debates over what to cut.

By the numbers

$800,000: Total cuts recently made by the city of Springfield from its 2017 budget.

$269,000: Amount the city voted to cut from the Clark County Municipal Court budget.

$182,000: Amount the city voted to cut from the Clark County Clerk of Courts budget.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

Ohio congressman leaving office
Ohio congressman leaving office

Congressman Rep. Pat Tiberi announced Thursday that he will be leaving Congress by the end of next January, capping 16 years representing his central Ohio congressional district. In a statement released at 10 a.m., Tiberi said he would not be seeking re-election. Instead, he’ll serve as president of the Ohio Business Roundtable. “It has...
Clark County residents mixed on fee to pay for new $4M 9-1-1 center
Clark County residents mixed on fee to pay for new $4M 9-1-1 center

Clark County residents had a mixed reaction to a proposal to add a $60 annual fee to property tax bills to pay for a new combined emergency dispatch center, citing concerns with costs but also believing it could save lives. The city of Springfield and Clark County have debated combining their separate dispatch centers for more than decade, with cost...
Teens may see major changes to driving laws in Ohio
Teens may see major changes to driving laws in Ohio

Teens getting their first driver’s license may face more training requirements, delays and driving restrictions, if a new bill pending in the Ohio House becomes law. The legislation, which is supported by police, insurance and public health groups, contains elements that are sure to be popular with parents but other parts may be seen as a hassle...
Kasich criticizes President Trump actions on health care as ‘outrageous’
Kasich criticizes President Trump actions on health care as ‘outrageous’

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said it is “outrageous” President Donald Trump and lawmakers from both parties have not forged a compromise aimed at both stabilizing the 2010 health law and continuing federal dollars to help middle-income Americans afford their federally subsidized policies.   During an appearance Sunday on NBC’ Meet the...
Ex Springfield Superintendent Estrop sees jobs as critical to rebound
Ex Springfield Superintendent Estrop sees jobs as critical to rebound

After 10 years as the superintendent at the Springfield City School District, David Estrop now hopes to serve the community in a different capacity — as a city commissioner. Last year Estrop served as a member of the Community Financial Advisory Committee and was chairman of the city’s tax increase campaign last fall. That issue failed...
More Stories