- Michael Cooper Staff Writer
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.
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.
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.
“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.”