Springfield city leaders want to slash about $450,000 from the municipal court and clerk’s budgets next year as they grapple with a projected deficit, but those elected officials say the money is needed to run the court efficiently.
City staff members have recommended about $1.5 million in cuts to several departments next year — including to parks, a local tourism agency and the police and fire divisions — after voters rejected an income tax increase last month.
That includes a proposed $269,000 cut to the Clark County Municipal Court. The court requested about $2.68 million for next year.
The Clark County Municipal Clerk’s budget also could get a $182,000 cut. It requested about $1.83 million.
The cuts to both public offices could lead to job losses, city leaders said at last month’s budget meetings.
Springfield city commissioners will hold a first reading on the 2017 budget on Tuesday. Commissioners may approve a temporary budget while they further analyze all of the proposed cuts. They were expected to meet last week, but no meeting was scheduled.
The court and clerk’s office cuts seem to be reasonable given the information provided to him, Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland said, and other city departments have taken cuts.
“Their budgets have gone up while ours have been going down,” he said. “This is basically catching them up with the cuts we’ve had to make. Obviously, they’ll have a right to make their case, so we’ll go from there.”
For example in 2014, the city manager’s department spent about $570,000. This year it will likely spend about $393,000.
The municipal court is a separate branch of government and not a city department, longtime Clark County Municipal Court Judge Eugene Nevius said.
“When push comes to shove, the city commission doesn’t order the judicial branch to do something,” Nevius said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t get to that.”
The municipal court has about 35 employees who are paid from its general fund, which includes probation, security and judicial staff. The clerk’s office has about 20 workers.
“With all due respect to the city commission, I’ll wait until they formally adopt something and go from there,” Municipal Clerk of Courts Guy Ferguson said.
The judges are willing to cooperate with them in any appropriate ways it can, Nevius said.
“They’re asking (the court and clerk’s office) to make up 30 percent of their shortfall and that’s just not appropriate,” Nevius said. “We’re trying to figure out, if anything, what we could do that’s appropriate. We’re still working on that.”
Even with the possible cuts to both the clerk and the court, they’re still spending more than they did 10 years ago, leaders said. The city provided $2.2 million to the court in 2006 and about $1.4 million to the clerk’s office.
The municipal judges have set up one of the best operating municipal courts in the state and have taken steps to insulate themselves from financial problems, Nevius said.
“It makes no sense to dismantle a highly functioning judicial machine during a temporary crisis that the city’s handling because they haven’t managed their affairs,” he said. “We’ve been good stewards of taxpayer money and have met our responsibilities as elected officials and can make the case that we have not only saved millions of taxpayer dollars, but have taken steps to make sure we can continue to function during these times.”
In 1996, the court began receiving grant money to hire two intensive probation officers to address jail overcrowding, Nevius said. Those two positions alone have saved about $4 million, he estimated. A third intensive probation officer was hired with grant money to help with the local heroin epidemic, he said.
>>EARLIER COVERAGE: Clark County court cases declining, but not staffs
Cuts to state funding have put Springfield in a bind, Nevius said, but there are other areas where cuts could be made, such as to a local tourism agency.
“I sure think that should go before policemen should be taken off the street in the middle of a heroin war,” Nevius said.
A portion of the lodging tax has to be spent on tourism, Copeland said, and even if the city cuts most of that funding, it doesn’t solve the entire budget hole. At the same time, the mayor understands where Nevius is coming from, he said.
“Public safety is a high priority,” Copeland said.
The city is required to fund the courts so they can adequately do their jobs, he said.
“They’ll have to make the case that these cuts make it impossible to do that,” Copeland said.
Earlier this year, an independent audit of the city’s finances recommended commissioners review staffing levels at the municipal court and consolidate the municipal and Clark County Clerk of Courts offices.
The study recommended examining staff levels based on reduced caseloads for the three municipal court judges compared to other similar-sized cities in Ohio. It’s difficult to examine those numbers because it doesn’t take into account the amount of time spent handling the cases, Nevius said.
“The time has increased,” Nevius said. “It’s not really reflective to say the numbers have gone down … It’s misleading to go by numbers.”
Since 1999, municipal court cases have declined about 3.5 percent in Clark County, Judge Thomas Trempe said. In 2015, the courts heard about 26,000 cases.
“There’s not an appreciable reduction in the number of cases from 16 years ago,” he said. “There were a number of spikes where cases went up for whatever reason and those were handled without additional staff.”
It’s difficult to compare Ohio courts because each is different, Trempe said, including probation and security staffing. Both Trempe and Nevius were open to a study by the National Center for State Courts.
Ferguson declined comment on the recommendation to combine the clerks offices.
“That decision would be made by the legislature,” he said.
By the numbers
$1.5M: Total money proposed to be cut from the city of Springfield’s 2017 budget.
$269,000: Amount the city has proposed cutting from the Clark County Municipal Court budget.
$182,000: Amount the city has proposed cutting from the Clark County Clerk of Courts budget.
Staying with the story
The Springfield News-Sun has written extensively about the proposed $1.5 million in 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.