Maumee judge unhappy with city’s budget cutsWritten by Sarah Ottney | Managing Editor | firstname.lastname@example.org
A local judge isn’t happy with Maumee’s recently passed budget, which cut funding to Maumee Municipal Court.
To help balance its $16.5 million budget, Maumee City Council made cuts to court funding, which will see an 18 percent decrease in its total budget.
The cuts include a 21 percent cut in the personnel budget, with finance committee members questioning the need for six after-hours clerks, who provide 24-hour services for tasks such as warrants.
The budget was passed unanimously during the council’s March 17 meeting.
In a March 17 letter to council members, Judge Gary Byers said the cuts will mean more work for other clerks and their overtime will negate any planned savings.
“The clerks that the city proposes to terminate process thousands of court cases filed in the court and enter case information into the court’s computerized case management system. This includes the processing of arrest and search warrants at all hours of the night, which is a necessary and essential service to the public and police,” Byers wrote. “With or without these clerks, the same number of cases will need to be processed, but by six fewer people. Therefore, the processing of case files will be slowed profoundly and staff will need to work overtime. Considering the cost of overtime wages and unemployment compensation benefits to the terminated court clerks, it is questioned whether any true reductions will be realized.”
The court currently employs 16 clerks — a clerk, chief deputy clerk, nine full-time clerks and five part-time clerks — who handle 9,000 to 10,000 cases per year. When drawing up the budget, council members questioned the need for two of the full-time clerks and four of the part-time clerks.
Byers said he is especially concerned because the night-shift clerks allow the court to immediately process after-hours cases, particularly those involving domestic violence and vehicular homicide, and issue warrants if needed.
“If they are successful in getting us to do away with these folks, the delays that could happen could cost somebody’s life. It’s not worth the risk to the community to remove these people and slow down the whole process, so we are resisting that reduction. It’s not worth a few dollars to lose somebody.”
Councilman Dan Hazard, a member of the finance committee, said the court’s caseload has dropped by 41 percent since 2001, but the court employs the same number of staff members and personnel costs have increased by 34 percent.
“When you look at that, you have to make a decision whether it’s a reasonable request,” Hazard said. “When we went through the court’s budget, we asked questions relative to some of these specific positions and whether they were reasonable or necessary. If we don’t have the caseload, we don’t have the need for personnel in that area.”
Byers said it’s true there are fewer cases today than in 2001, but the number of cases have been on the rise the past few years and processing the cases takes specialized skills. The court handled 9,345 cases in 2013.
Maumee is also the only area suburban court that staffs a 24-hour clerk’s office, Hazard said. Other area communities have an on-call clerk overnight rather than someone staffing the building, he said.
Hazard also said many departments have cut costs by not filling positions of those who leave or retire, but the court has always filled its empty positions. Byers said that’s because the positions are necessary for the court to function. Byers also rejected the suggestion that dispatchers help cover clerk duties, calling it a conflict of interest.
Hazard also noted that city council agrees on a budget for the court and makes suggestions, but doesn’t mandate any staff changes and Byers could find a way to keep the clerks using money from other sources.
“We pass a budget line item for personnel for the court, but we didn’t actually vote to remove anybody,” Hazard said. “We did discuss the reasonableness and necessity of the them.”
The court receives funding from other sources, such as the court fees, the state and other municipalities, such as Waterville and Whitehouse, but Maumee is its primary funding source.
The total budget for the court is $1.36 million, an 18 percent decrease from the $1.66 million budgeted last year. The city budgeted 1.1 million for court personnel this year, compared to 1.4 million last year.
Last year, the city provided about $705,000 to the court. This year it is expected to provide the court $587,000, which is the budgeted expenses over projected revenue for 2014.
Maumee Mayor Richard Carr said he is proud the city was able to pass a balanced budget for 2014, after having come into office in November 2012 facing a proposed budget with a $1.7 million deficit.
“We did not increase taxes, we did not create new fees such as a garbage fee, we did not reallocate our budget percentages taking money from one fund and transferring it to another; instead, we began an intensive scrutiny of every expense in our City and began reducing spending,” he said in an email. “Last Monday, our Council passed a true balanced budget for 2014. None of our reductions will impact services that are presently provided for our residents and businesses.”
Byers noted that court revenue going to the city of Maumee has increased almost 24 percent, from $644,000 in 2009 to $846,000 in 2013. However, Carr said, its expenses still exceed its revenue.
“The expenses of the Maumee Municipal Court exceeded its revenue in 2001 by $272,993; in 2013 the expenses of the Maumee Municipal Court exceeded its revenue by over $700,000,” Carr wrote. “We have the same number of employees handling 41 percent fewer cases at a time when our court costs us nearly a half million dollars a year more than it cost us in 2001.”
Byers also said the court has reduced its costs over the past five years. Among the cost-saving measures have been more arraignments via closed-circuit television cameras and alternate sentencings such as electronic monitoring. The court also laid off a chief supervision officer in the probation department last month, with Byers taking over that employee’s duties.
Hazard said he was aware of the court’s cost-cutting measures over the years.
“Judge Byers is really in tune with technology. He’s been proactive in that regard and I really applaud him for that,” Hazard said. “This is my obligation to the tax payers and just a disagreement as to whether this is reasonable.”
Byers is also peeved by many city employees getting raises while the court is expected to cut staff.
“It’s a matter of fairness,” Byers said.
Hazard noted that a prosecutor’s position was recently cut and a secretary in the administration had hours reduced.
“We’re not just picking on the court,” he said.
Hazard said the judge’s letter was delivered to his house and he didn’t see it before the meeting, but it wouldn’t have affected his decision.
“I have nothing but respect for Judge Byers, both personally and professionally,” Hazard said. “But we have a responsibility as elected officials to do due diligence in looking at budgets and presenting a balanced budget. The mayor worked diligently with council to present a balanced budget and looked line-by-line at every department’s budget to see how we could get there.”
Byers said he plans to try to find a way to keep the clerks.
One of the full-time clerks has been in that job for 25 years, the other for eight. Both are paid $49,603. The four part-timers were all hired in 2013 and make $10.20 per hour.
“These folks are necessary for the court to function and we need to keep them,” Byers said. “I hope they reconsider.”
Hazard said the budget has been passed and will not be reviewed. Byers can take the council’s decision to court, but he said he hasn’t yet decided if he will.