Should Clark County clerks offices be combined to save money?


State lawmakers want to eliminate the Clark County Municipal Clerk of Courts office to save the city of Springfield money, but other local leaders believe any changes should be thoroughly analyzed before action is taken.

An amendment in the state budget bill late last month would have eliminated the municipal clerk’s office, rolling it into the Clark County Common Pleas Clerk of Courts office. It was proposed by state Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield.

The measure was removed from the budget bill by the House Finance Committee. Koehler believes lobbyists might have stepped in during the process to strike it. But it might be introduced again when the Senate takes up the budget.

“There’s no reason it doesn’t make financial sense to combine these offices,” Koehler said. “Only the state can make that decision. I’m doing what I can to help the city of Springfield save money.”

RELATED: Ohio House budget proposal would eliminate Municipal Clerk’s office

Springfield City Manager Jim Bodenmiller was surprised to see the amendment in the budget bill. The concept has been discussed for several years, he said, and is worth talking about more. But he said it should be analyzed to determine all of the potential effects

“It may make perfect sense, may be a great idea,” Bodenmiller said. “I just think we need to be careful and do it all the right way.”

Any idea that would make the court more efficient is worth discussing for the community, said Judge Thomas Capper, the presiding judge of the Clark County Common Pleas Court. However that hasn’t been done, he said.

The Clark County Criminal Justice Council will discuss the proposed consolidation at its May 18 meeting, said Capper, the council’s chairman. He’s invited both Koehler and Hackett, as well as the Chamber of Greater Springfield Board President Jim Lagos.

“There has been no local discussion,” Capper said. “There hasn’t been any local communication until (the News-Sun) brought this to our attention.”

Annual savings?

The Ohio House passed the $63.7 billion two-year state budget last week. The bill now goes to the Ohio Senate, Koehler said, where it’s possible a similar amendment to combine the clerk’s offices could be added.

Legislators face a June 30 deadline to adopt the budget bill. Any changes to the court system have to be approved by the state legislature.

Early last week, State Sen. Bob Hackett, R-London, told the Springfield News-Sun he supports consolidating the clerk’s offices. He said late Friday that he didn’t plan to introduce the measure and believes more discussions should take place before lawmakers approve any changes.

Although the city pays the majority of the budget for the municipal court and the clerk’s office, it doesn’t have any control over staffing or spending because judges and clerks are elected officials.

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 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.

“There’s no reason to have all of that staff,” Koehler said. “I’m not saying anyone is doing a bad job. … We need to do what we can to try to save money at the city and county level and this is one way we can do it.”

The municipal clerk’s office will spend about $1.6 million this year with a total of 17 employees. At one point, Municipal Court Clerk Guy Ferguson had as many as 26 employees.

Last year, the clerk’s office saw more than 25,000 cases, up from about 24,000 in 2015. Ferguson, who has served in the municipal clerk position since 1983, makes 85 percent of a judge’s salary under state law, meaning he makes about $106,000 annually.

The common pleas court clerk’s office will spend about $1.6 million this year with a total of 20 employees — down from 24 employees at the beginning of the year, recently-elected Common Pleas Clerk Melissa Tuttle said. Last year, the office saw about 6,000 cases, up from 5,800 cases, according to clerk’s records.

Commons pleas court clerks’ salaries are based on each county’s population per state law, meaning Tuttle makes about $67,000 annually.

In a county that employs only one elected common pleas clerk who is then appointed to also oversee the municipal court, that person would make the standard common pleas clerk rate, plus 25 percent. In Clark County that would be about $83,000 per year.

MORE: Springfield committee: Municipal courts need budget review

The municipal clerk’s office requested about $1.83 million for this year, but the city instead cut its budget 10 percent to about $1.64 million. Although the city’s recent tax increase passed, Bodenmiller said it’s unclear if the cuts to the clerk’s office will be restored.

The audit recommended examining a staff reduction at the court and the clerk’s office, he said, including a possible study from the National Center for State Courts.

The consolidation could save money, Bodenmiller said, but it isn’t clear how the combined clerks would be paid for. The idea needs to be vetted more carefully, he said.

The city’s recent income tax increase passed, but Bodenmiller said Springfield isn’t out of the woods. It must continue to look for cost savings and efficiencies, he said.

“There are a lot of details that need to be talked through,” Bodenmiller said.

Some residents have asked Koehler to wait until Ferguson retires, Koehler said, which he technically already has.

“I can’t really wait for someone to retire that’s already retired,” Koehler said. “I’m not doing it to hurt anybody, I’m doing it to help the city.”

Efficient service

When the amendment was first introduced, Ferguson hadn’t heard anything about it. He was happy the House removed it from the budget bill, he said.

Ferguson wants to see justification for the consolidation, he said, and he’s yet to see a cost analysis.

“Nobody involved in the system has seen it,” Ferguson said.

The office is the most efficiently run office in the county, he said.

“The public and municipal court judges deserve efficient service,” Ferguson said.

If given the opportunity, Ferguson said he plans to run for re-election.

“I still feel like I have things I want to accomplish,” he said. “I enjoy it.”

EARLIER COVERAGE: Clark Co. court cases declining, but not staffs

Tuttle, in her fifth month in office, is working to change the common pleas clerk’s office, including bringing everyone under one roof, she said. She believes open discussions should be held before any decision is made.

“We need to have more communication about if this is really for the greater good of the taxpayer,” Tuttle said. “If it is, then we need to do it if it’s something that will save the taxpayers time and money.”

She’s also willing to work with Ferguson on any possible proposal, she said, especially now that the city’s income tax increase passed.

“Let’s take these five years (of the tax increase) to make sure we’re operating the way it needs to be done,” Tuttle said.

The devil is in the details, Clark County Commissioner Rick Lohnes said. He believes it can save money, but he’s not sure how it will be proposed.

“It’s got to save money,” Lohnes said.

Technology

The online system used by the municipal clerk’s office has been put in place over the past 15 to 20 years, he said. The city also receives royalties from licensing portions of its system to other organizations, Ferguson said.

“It’s just a way of life here,” he said.

The municipal clerk’s office has electronic filing for both the Springfield Police Division and the Ohio State Highway Patrol, Ferguson said.

“It’s been a big reduction in the hours we have to spend doing it,” he said.

The municipal clerk’s office also allows online payments and digital images of case files to be viewed online, which helps local law enforcement and legal departments, Ferguson said.

“That’s a big savings to everyone involved,” he said. “The business community really appreciates the fact that they can look up cases and see about potential employees or tenants or anything.”

It’s also working to send all of its data electronically to the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Ohio Supreme Court, Ferguson said.

Tuttle — who beat longtime Common Pleas Clerk Ron Vincent last November to become the first female clerk in Clark County’s history — is working to implement a new case management technology system to allow for similar conveniences, including digital imaging and electronic filing for attorneys, she said.

Ferguson’s system is far better than the current system at the common pleas court, she said, but she believes she can bring the technology up to 2017 standards.

“I’m just trying to dig through everything and make sure this office is as good as it can be,” Tuttle said.

Differing opinions

The municipal and common pleas clerk’s offices in Miami County were consolidated in 2012. The first year, it saved about $80,000 to $90,000 by not having to pay a second elected official, longtime Clerk Jan Mottinger said.

“In the long run, it has been (a cost savings),” Mottinger said. “It works real great.”

The office has 27 full-time employees and two part-time worker, including both courts and the title office, he said. It handled about 28,000 cases in 2014.

The consolidated clerk is one of six in the state of Ohio, including Warren and Hamilton counties.

MORE: Judges: Proposed Springfield court budget plan illegal

Warren County saved about $25,000 to $30,000 annually by no longer paying for a second elected clerk’s salary. It was also trimmed its staff from about 12 to nine deputy clerks, according to the study completed for the city of Springfield last October.

The Ohio Association of Municipal/County Court Clerks isn’t advocating for consolidated clerk’s offices, said President Cindy Dinovo, the Delaware County Municipal Clerk of Courts.

The municipal and common pleas courts handle different cases, she said. The municipal court has a high volume of misdemeanor cases that have to be completed faster than common pleas court cases, which handles felony cases and civil cases over $15,000, Dinovo said.

“It’s not really necessarily an easy consolidation,” she said.

The municipal court must adjudicate cases in six months, Dinovo said, while the common pleas court has much longer to get the cases heard.

If a local community decides to consolidate, it must be done with the cooperation of all parties, she said, including both clerks, judges, the bar association and other community leaders. She’s not sure consolidation will actually save money in the long run, depending on the setup of the facilities.

“I don’t think it’s something that should just go into a bill without the community having a say in the process,” Dinovo said.

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