- Michael Cooper Staff Writer
The Clark County Municipal Court filed an order against the city of Springfield on Wednesday, demanding city commissioners fully fund the court’s proposed operating budget this year — more than six months after it called the city’s budget proposal illegal.
It was filed because the court needs its budget restored to meet its payroll and to operate this year, according to records obtained by the Springfield News-Sun. It orders the city to certify a copy of the budget appropriation by 3 p.m. Friday, July 7, records stated.
“We’ve given them plenty of time,” Municipal Court judge Eugene Nevius said.
During its budget meetings last winter, the city recommended cutting the municipal court’s budget by 10 percent. The court asked for about $2.68 million this year, but the city voted $2.4 million.
The situation could’ve been resolved six months ago, Nevius said, but the city has a problem regarding who makes decisions in the city. He alleges city staff has taken over decision-making and is telling elected officials what to do, rather than the other way around. City staff — including City Manager Jim Bodenmiller and Law Director Jerry Strozdas — have served as decision-makers, rather than advisors, he said.
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“If we could’ve just gotten across the table with (the commission), face-to-face, this would all have been resolved. This was so unnecessary.”
While a divided city commission passed the budget last December, commissioners unanimously voted to approve the use of about $450,000 from the court’s Future Facilities, Special Projects and Municipal Court Improvement funds to pay for cuts at both the municipal court and the municipal clerk of courts office.
“They can blame the city commission because we voted to take the recommendation of the staff,” Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland said. “That’s the way the system is set up. … Don’t blame it on staff, we voted for it.”
Judges later told the News-Sun it was illegal to use money from its revenue-generating funds — such as court costs — to pay for its operations. City leaders disagreed and still believe their proposal to cover budget cuts to the judicial system is legal.
Nevius hopes city commissioners will vote to restore the court’s budget at Wednesday’s meeting and pay legal fees incurred by the court, which will cost more than $5,000, he said. He believes the city has gotten bad legal advice because in similar cases, all legal precedence has gone in favor of the courts, Nevius said.
The city will hold an executive session at Wednesday’s meeting to discuss pending litigation, Copeland said.
“We continue to believe it’s possible for them to save some money, but we’ll have to keep working on that,” he said. “We’ll do what we can to respond and go from there.”
The city manager brings an annual budget forward to the commission, who then approves it, Copeland said. They’ve been informed by the city staff through this entire process, he said.
“The court wasn’t treated any differently than any other folks we fund,” he said. “Our staff are the ones who pull together the budget and we’re the ones who decide to vote for or against that. The city commission has never been the ones who put the budget together. That’s not the way the city charter is organized.”
The decision to cut the court was made after the first income tax increase failed and there was uncertainty moving forward about whether a similar increase would pass in May, Copeland said.
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“At that point, we have cut everywhere,” he said. “They’ve not been asked to do anything more than what we’ve done in city government.”
Strozdas told the News-Sun he would not respond to personal attacks about himself or other city employees, and declined to discuss any other details of the case.
“I’m deeply disappointed that the judges decided to file the order at this time,” Strozdas said. “It’s very unfortunate.”
Judges told city leaders last winter to fund its operation in full because any cut in funding could lead to layoffs of six to nine employees who are needed to run the court efficiently, including probation officers and security.
In a June 8 letter to commissioners, the three judges said the funds are established for specific purposes, not general use, such as operating money.
The court asked for about $2.55 million in 2016, but operated at about $2.5 million, the letter says. The court asked for more money this year due to increases in health care costs, which are negotiated by the city and out of the court’s control.
The court spent $2.5 million on operating costs in 2014, $2.49 million in 2015 and about $2.5 million last year. The court has also reduced expenses on acting judges, restructured duties after personnel losses in the probation department and discontinued its long-running traffic school on Monday evenings to save money.
“We’ve done everything they’ve asked,” Nevius said.
The Ohio Supreme Court offers a mediation service between courts and government entities struggling to come to terms over an operating budget. However, Nevius alleged the city was not interested in going to mediation because the sessions would have been public, he said.
Nevius later met with Mayor Warren Copeland and asked him to make the courts’ budget whole again. Other agencies facing cuts before a $6.7 million income tax increase passed in May had all its budget restored, but not the municipal court, Nevius said.
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“Why is there a target on our backs? Whose agenda is this, the city staff?” Nevius asked. “We just want to have our budget restored.”
Several cuts made earlier this year remain intact, including those made to city personnel and the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, Copeland said.
“We’ve not restored those cuts,” he said. “I just don’t think he understands what our situation has been. We could not afford to go back to where we were even with the passage of the levy.”
The majority of the cuts made to the budget will remain, except for the areas the city told taxpayers it would restore, such as police and fire, Copeland said.
Nevius hasn’t heard anything since the meeting with Copeland, he said.
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. 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.
“We hope it doesn’t get to that point,” Nevius said.