County Assessing New Judge Costs

April 28, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — When county commissioners agreed to add another judge to the 17th Circuit Court last month, they did so almost unanimously and with a promise of ensuring justice for residents.

But that guarantee comes with a hefty price tag, as Commissioner Jack Horton pointed out during one of two committee meetings that were held on the issue prior to the vote.

“This is difficult for us when we look at the expense,” said Horton. “But it is something that we need to do.”

Although the state will pay the new judge’s salary, which will top $100,000 annually, the county will be adding $400,000 in expenses to its 2007 general operating budget for support staff, and at least $350,000 worth of expenditures to each budget every year after next year.

The $400,000 will cover the cost of two new court clerks, two new assistant prosecuting attorneys, a new part-time docket clerk, and about $50,000 worth of office renovations and equipment purchases that will be made for the new prosecutors.

At a recent budget discussion with members of the Finance Committee, County Fiscal Services Director Robert White said the forecast for the 2007 budget contains a $2.5 million surplus — the largest surplus the general operating budget will have for the next four years.

That surplus, however, actually will be smaller, because White put the forecast together before commissioners decided to add a 13th judge to the circuit court.

“Out of the $2.5 million surplus is where it is going to come from,” said Daryl Delabbio, Kent County administrator and controller, of the court costs.

The county has also vowed not to use any dollars from the fund balance, or reserve account, to cover any shortfalls in the next budget. So for next year, expenses from the general operating budget can’t exceed the revenues to it.

“That’s correct,” said Delabbio.

The Finance Committee has also received almost $24 million worth of requests for capital improvement projects from the various county department heads. Nearly $5 million of that amount has been projected to come from the general tax levy, which feeds revenue to the general operating budget.

“We have to go through that list and whittle that down to a manageable number. The call for the operating budget just went out, so it’s really hard to determine what the needs are going to be. What Bob (White) had factored in for 2007 was a 3 percent growth. So we’re going to look at all the requests,” said Delabbio.

At least four of those capital improvement requests are for the building at 82 Ionia Ave. NW, home of the Kent County Prosecutor’s Office and where the two new assistant prosecuting attorneys will be situated. Those four requests total $475,000, a figure that doesn’t include the $50,000 tab to make room for the new attorneys, and the projects are targeted to be paid for by general tax revenue.

“The Finance Committee gave me parameters six weeks ago saying that I couldn’t use reserves. So my goal is, when I present the budget to the board, the current revenues will equal the current expenditures. That means there may not be additional funds for other departments because of the commitment and priority the board has made to the new judge,” said Delabbio.

“We are also looking at some types of revenue enhancements, such as taking a more aggressive look at delinquent tax collections. There are other ways of doing this, and we’re trying to enhance revenues, as well,” he said.

Right now, fiscal year 2007 appears to be the best of the next five years for the county to absorb the additional annual expenditures that will come from having another judge behind the circuit court bench, because the $2.5 million surplus in FY07 falls each year thereafter to a $6,400 deficit in 2011. But that 2011 deficit could grow much larger for two reasons.

One, the Corrections and Detention Millage expires at the end of 2009. Current revenue generated by the voter-approved levy is about $15 million, with $11 million being used for jail operations, and the county will have that revenue through fiscal year 2010. But if voters don’t back a millage renewal, the county won’t have that revenue source starting in 2011.

Two, the revenue sharing reserve fund, which the state initiated to replace the sales tax revenue sharing formula for counties, runs out in 2010 for Kent County. That will result in a revenue loss of roughly $8 million for 2011, if the old formula or something like it isn’t reinstated by then.

“We will find out about that, obviously, in 2011. But we will get some indication prior to that if Tuscola County, which is the first county that comes on line, gets funded in 2009,” said Delabbio of that county’s return to revenue sharing as proposed by the state Senate.

“But even if that happens and the millage rate isn’t renewed, we could still have a $15 million to $17 million gap,” he said.

So when 2011 arrives, the county could be looking at $23 million less in revenue than it will have for 2007; $15 million if the millage doesn’t pass and $8 million if revenue sharing isn’t restored. And the county will have spent about $1.45 million on the new judicial staffing positions by 2011.

The circuit court budget is $16.3 million this year, while the prosecutor’s office is $5.4 million, and both will rise in the coming years. So when Horton made his comment about how adding a judge to the court would be a difficult but necessary decision, he was looking at the county’s future.

“The philosophy of the board of commissioners has been, at least since I’ve been here, that we have to do our due diligence and not just respond in a haphazard manner. We have to take every request seriously and look at it. They not only talked to the judges, which was obviously appropriate, they talked to others who were going to be impacted by this: the prosecuting attorney, the clerk’s office and others,” said Delabbio.

“Some might have been of the philosophy that this shouldn’t happen. Some might have been of the philosophy that this has to happen. But a consensus was reached and I think it was a good process. And I think that is what differentiates Kent County from others.”

Delabbio said a top priority that commissioners made in their strategic planning session last year was to have a fair and efficient judicial system. And for them, adding a judge to the court is part of filling their promise to ensure justice.

“This isn’t inconsistent with their strategic plan,” he said. “And I think that is an important point.”    

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