Clark County court cases declining, but not staffs

In some areas, case loads have dropped up to 50 percent over 15 years.

The total caseload for the municipal court is down 25 percent since 2000, about 8,000 fewer cases per year. But some misdemeanors, like parking tickets, and small claims caseloads have been cut in half.

Although there has been some reduction in the size of the clerk and judicial staffs at both courts, this drop in the number of cases being processed has led some to question whether a larger overhaul is in order.

“The advent of technology as well as the contraction of the caseloads warrants a restructure of the local court system,” said local attorney and Treasurer of the Clark County Bar Association Dan Harkins.

Other counties have seen cost savings by either reducing the number of judge seats or combining multiple clerk positions into one.

Currently, Clark County has three full-time municipal judges and a clerk’s staff of 20 full-time employees handling all municipal cases for the city of Springfield and the county — about 23,000 cases last year, down from an average of more than 30,000 a decade ago.

Clerk of Courts Guy Ferguson said his staff has shrunk by 15 percent since 2000. The office’s budget has increased by 30 percent over that time period, according to the city.

The municipal judicial staff has held steady at 35 full-time employees. It’s budget is up from about $1.7 million in 2000, but has been fairly flat, between $2.4 and $2.5 million, since 2007.

“It’s plateaued,” Municipal Judge Eugene Nevius said. “We have frozen hiring … we could use more probation officers, but we’ve held off.”

The county has five common pleas judges — three assigned to the general division, one probate judge and one judge who handles juvenile cases. The court handled about 10,000 cases in 2014, down 15 percent from 2000.

While the common pleas clerk’s staff has decreased from 12 full-time employees in 2003 to 10 today, its budget, paid for by the county, has grown by 22 percent. The judicial staff has also increased by two full-time positions.

Although the city pays the majority of the budget for the municipal court and the county funds the common pleas court, neither entity has any control over staffing or spending because judges and clerks are elected officials.

“County commissioners do not have the statutory authority to dictate to judges what their budget is,” County Administer Nathan Kennedy said. “They do give them a budget, however judges can always trump it with a court order.”

City officials said this can be frustrating, but they aren’t convinced the caseload declines to this point warrant any major changes.

“It would be nice if we could affect all of our departments and divisions in a way that makes the most possible sense during lean tough times, but that’s not the reality we’re working with,” said City Manager Jim Bodenmiller.

Fewer cases doesn’t mean less work

Bodenmiller said he’s aware there have been some discussions about the possibility of combining clerk’s offices, but said a decline in cases doesn’t necessarily mean cuts need to be made in the court system.

“It doesn’t mean that if you wrote 2,000 less citations that you need one less judge or one less municipal court person any more than adding 2,000 doesn’t necessary justify adding a person,” he said.

Municipal judges agreed, pointing out that the cases declining the most are traffic, parking and small claims.

“Most of those are ones already handled by the magistrates,” Nevius said. The amount of time spent on each case is also a factor, he said.

Criminal cases are down about 5 percent since 2000.

“On the criminal side, how many times are the judges touching this ball?” Springfield Police Chief Stephen Moody said. “How many times is that defendant actually appearing in front of them?”

Any changes to the court system have to be approved by the state legislature. Area State Reps., Kyle Koehler (R-Springfield) and Bob Hackett (R-London) said they have not been approached by any local officials about court consolidations.

Clark County is not alone as caseloads are shrinking at courts statewide. But some officials said additional demands continue to be heaped on the courts by lawmakers, meaning their staffs and budgets need to be maintained.

“The folks writing the laws don’t always think about it. When they give unfunded mandates, that slows me down,” said Montgomery County Clerk of Courts Gregory Brush.

Caseloads may be going down, but each new task adds work for the entire system, he added.

For example, a new law named after the late Clark County Deputy Suzanne Hopper, which requires better tracking of individuals who have documented mental illness issues, has created more work for clerk’s offices, Brush said.

The role and responsibility of judges is constantly expanding, said Ohio Supreme Court Chief Maureen O’Connor, and caseload is just one measure of their impact on the community.

“The demands on the system are not just expressed in numbers,” she said.

One clerk vs. two

Several Ohio counties have just one clerk of courts who handles operations for both the county common pleas and municipal courts, but the size and scope of those offices varies widely.

In Hamilton County, the combined clerk’s office was responsible for processing more than 250,000 cases last year. Meanwhile in Auglaize County, Jean Meckstroh serves as a combined clerk overseeing about 14,000 cases annually.

Meckstroh said when the county worked with legislators to change from an east and west court to a countywide common pleas and municipal court system, it decided to employ one clerk because the salary requirements represented a huge cost savings.

Under Ohio law, common pleas court clerks are paid a set salary based on the population of the county. In 2014, Clark County Clerk of Common Pleas Ron Vincent made just over $61,000.

Municipal court clerks are paid 85 percent of a municipal judge’s salary, also set by state statute.

Since 2008, full-time municipal judges have made about $114,000 annually. So Ferguson makes about $97,000.

But if a county employs only one elected common pleas clerk who is then appointed to also oversee the municipal court, then that person would make the standard common pleas clerk rate, plus 25 percent. In Clark County that would be about $76,000 a year.

“I really think the savings on the salary is worth it,” Meckstroh said.

Miami County moved to this system in 2012.

Previously as a county with a population under 100,000, Miami County was allowed to have an elected common pleas clerk and an appointed municipal clerk, paid at the discretion of the judges.

But when the county’s population grew, state law said it would have to elect a municipal court clerk and pay that person the 85 percent rate.

Instead, local officials got their lawmakers to pass legislation saying the county could operate with a combined clerk’s office.

“We’re saving about $75,000 plus benefits,” Miami County Clerk of Courts Jan Mottinger said. He’s served as the elected clerk for 39 years and got a $15,000 raise when he took over as municipal clerk. “But (the county) still saves quite a bit of money.”

“Obviously, if you go from two mandated, or sort of statutory positions, to one you’re going to save money in terms of the mandated portion. But will you save money overall? I don’t know,” Kennedy said. “It depends on how that new elected official would organize their office.”

Miami County, which has a population of about 104,000, employs 28 people in the clerk’s office, including the title division, Mottinger said. Combined, the courts handled more than 28,000 cases in 2014.

Clark County, population 136,000, handled more than 35,000 cases last year between its two courts.

Embracing technology

Another advantage of having all cases go through one clerk’s office is that the cases would all be in the same computer system.

Clark County is moving toward a more uniform software that will eventually put everyone from the sheriff’s office to prosecutors and common pleas court on the same system. But Ferguson said he opted not to use that system for municipal because he has an established system that works well.

“I’d say it’s one of the best in the state,” he said. “There’s not a day goes by that attorneys or business people or private citizens don’t comment about how user friendly it is and how good it is, and it’s always up. There was no reason for me to change.”

No one has ever asked him about expanding use of his system to common pleas as well, he said.

“Having two different clerks process the same defendants seems to be a little antiquated,” Harkins said, as most criminal cases start in municipal court but are bound over to common pleas.

Ferguson said technology has led to more efficiency and is the main reason his staff has shrunk over the years.

But neither court is using electronic filing, something some counties like Montgomery have made mandatory.

Montgomery County has cut its clerk of courts staff by 35 percent since introducing e-filing in 2009. Brush also recently moved both courts to the same case management system, allowing cases to be processed more quickly and efficiently with less staff, he said.

“If technology can help, why aren’t we doing it?” Harkins said.

But more technology also requires more maintenance, Brush said.

He now has seven IT professionals on his staff, up from one when he was first elected.

“And programmers are more expensive than clerks,” he said.

Judge caseloads below state average

Some courts in Ohio have eliminated judges as their caseloads have dropped.

Currently, the three Clark County Municipal Court judges are averaging about 8,700 cases each over the past five years. That’s below the state average of about 9,600 per judge.

“We’re a little under the statewide average, but I don’t think that it warrants a reduction in the number of judges,” said Judge Thomas Trempe.

The municipal judges all operate very lean, he said, each with a staff of two people.

But Harkins said cutting one judge seat could add up to big savings because it would eliminate those extra positions.

“It’s not only eliminating the judge, but the judge’s secretary and the judge’s bailiff … there may be a probation officer,” he said.

Courts that have cut judges have been able to do so through attrition in many instances.

Youngstown Municipal Court recently reduced the number of judges from three to two following the retirement of a judge.

The change saved the city more than $73,000 and the state nearly $64,000 annually in salary and related payroll expenses, according to a bill analysis by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission.

It brought the judges’ average caseloads up from about 4,400 to about 6,600 — closer to, but still below the state average, according to the Youngstown Vindicator.

Tiffin and Fostoria merged their municipal courts in 2013, going from two judicial staffs to one. The move happened after Tiffin Judge Barbara Marley died and Fostoria’s judge took over both dockets temporarily, according to the Toledo Blade.

Officials there told The Blade the move would save Fostoria about $200,000 and the state about $100,000.

Judges’ salaries are set by statute, since 2008 at $121,350 for common pleas and $114,100 for municipal. But the latest state budget gives them a series of four 5 percent raises. Starting in October, those salaries go up to $127,450 for common pleas and $119,850 for municipal.

Local government pays $61,750 towards municipal judges’ salaries, with Springfield paying 60 percent of that amount and the county 40 percent. That local share will not increase with the raises.

But Ferguson’s salary will increase as a percentage of the judges’ and it is paid by the city and county. Next year he’ll be making more than $101,000.

Kennedy said the relationship between the judges and the county is currently strong and they work together to come up with a budget that works for everyone.

“If they feel that for the effective and efficient operation of the court they need an additional position, I’m not going to second guess them or fight them over that,” he said. “They know how to run their court. I don’t.”

He is chair of the county’s criminal justice council and said that body has not discussed these types of consolidations.

He cautioned that removing a judge seat could lead to a slower court system.

“If you have less judges then you could potentially could have a backlog of cases. And that does get very expensive,” he said. “All of a sudden you’ve got your jail bursting at the seams and you have to go start farming your prisoners out to other counties. That gets far more expensive than the savings you got from eliminating a judge.”

Why are caseloads down?

Crime has been on a steady decline nationwide since the 1990s, so criminal court cases being down across the state is not a big surprise, according to Springfield chief Moody. The county has also lost population, down 8,000 residents from 1990 to 2010, dropping to 139,000.

“If you look at the past five years overall, violent crime was down just a little over 6 percent,” he said. “And property crime was down about 3.2 percent.”

Springfield’s calls for service were down 2.8 percent last year, Moody said.

But the drastic declines in parking and traffic cases can be attributed to decreased staffing in the city, officials said.

“Comparing back to 2003, we had 133 authorized in our police division, that’s down to 126 right now. Six or seven less officers is a factor,” Bodenmiller said. “We had two parking control assistants, now we have one. And that one, because of the shortage in officers, is sent throughout the city doing a lot of other things besides just parking.”

Another type of case that has been cut in half in recent years is foreclosures, Brush in Montgomery County said.

“Last year we were under 2,000 cases on foreclosures,” he said, down from more than 5,000 per year at the height of the foreclosure crisis.

The shrinking economy could also account for the drop in civil and small claims cases, Harkins said.

“You have less economic activity that’s going on in the community,” he said. “When you don’t have commerce you don’t have cases.”

Ferguson said people struggling financially may also just be less inclined to bring lawsuits if they think the fees involved might be cost prohibitive.

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