Collaboration group takes a second look at courts

April 15, 2012
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The Kent County Community Collaboration Work Group received some sticker-shock news last week when its members continued their review of the local judicial system, an assessment they began last month.

The work group discovered that the 17th Circuit Court, Probate Court and the six district courts in the county are costing a total of $81.1 million to operate this fiscal year — about $4.5 million more than last year.

Not all of that is local tax dollars. Roughly $41.3 million of that total is considered general fund dollars, which are largely taxes that the county and five municipalities collect and use to provide judicial services. The other $39.8 million represents non-general fund allocations, meaning some dollars are from the state and some are from fines and fees the courts collect.

Kent County always has the largest annual general-fund court tab; this year, it’s at $33.7 million for the circuit, probate and 63rd District courts. Grand Rapids is spending $6 million from its general fund this year on the 61st District Court. Wyoming is spending $632,730 on the 62nd District Court that it shares with Kentwood, which is allocating $228,500 to that court. Walker’s share of the 59th District Court is $370,105, while Grandville’s portion is $252,720.

Those are the numbers that total $41.3 million. “The courts are very, very expensive for the local units,” said county corporate counsel Dan Ophoff.

Grand Rapids Deputy City Manager Eric DeLong said it would be nice if the work group, which has been charged with looking into service sharing among the local units, could come up with a way to lower that cost. “It’s big. It’s nearly $42 million,” he said.

But County Commissioner Jim Saalfeld, who chairs the group and is an attorney, said finding ways to save money through consolidating the judicial system in the county could be a difficult task. “This may be an area that is heavily regulated by (state) statute, and constitutional law will inhibit any consolidation,” he said.

Ophoff said consolidating the district courts in Grand Rapids, Wyoming, Kentwood, Grandville and Walker into one courthouse could save the municipalities some serious money. But he said public officials would have to convince Lansing to allow that change.

Saalfeld, though, pointed out that if those courts were merged into one, then cases would likely take longer to decide. “Right now, it takes months and up to a year to get a case through,” he said.

Saalfeld said district courts handle the majority of the cases that are filed because most complaints are for less than $25,000, which is the starting monetary point for the circuit court.

Grand Rapids City Commissioner James White took a different approach to the funding issue. Instead of looking at ways to cut the cost, he felt maybe the work group should think about putting those dollars toward a longer-term use. “I’m talking about sustainability. How can those funds be used to make the courts sustainable?” he asked.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio suggested that the work group could possibly request that the state completely take over the judicial system and remove the burden for funding the courts from the local governments. He added that maybe if Lansing hears that suggestion enough times, the state might take the request under consideration.

Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom said the problem isn’t with the courts directly; he feels the system in the county operates efficiently. Rather, he said, the problem is with how the state set up the system long ago. Back then, it was modeled after the prominent form of local government, which was the township. Sundstrom said townships and courts were established in relation to how far a horse could travel in a single day.

“(But) even shaving off 10 percent of the $41 million would be great,” he said.

Delabbio reminded the work group that one court consolidation has taken place here. A few years ago, the county merged the 63rd District Court from locations in Rockford and Cascade Township to a single courthouse in Grand Rapids Township. “It saved money for the county. But it’s also saving attorneys and their clients money,” he said, mostly on travel costs.

“This is savings for the future, too,” added Michael DeVries, supervisor of Grand Rapids Township.

The work group was formed as a response to the One Kent Coalition, which reported last year it wanted to pursue state legislation to merge the county with Grand Rapids into a metropolitan government. The collaboration work group will meet again May 2.

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