Government and Law

County may be looking at higher court costs

Where those dollars will come from is anyone’s guess.

October 25, 2013
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The Kent County Executive Committee learned the commission may have to come up with more than $3 million in 2015 — money that’s not in its current budget — if the state expands the 17th Circuit Court.

The court currently has 12 justices and six clerks, but the caseload has become large enough that another judge, and possibly two, may be assigned to the court.

Although the state pays the salaries of jurists, the county is financially responsible for the operation of the court.

Assistant County Administrator Mary Swanson told the Executive Committee it may cost the county $2.8 million to build out two “shell” spaces in the courthouse at the corner of Ottawa Avenue and Lyon Street for courts, along with another $200,000 to install an electronic recording system in the rooms.

The figures come from a county Judicial Review Subcommittee.

Even if the state only assigns one new justice, the subcommittee said it’s more cost effective for the county to build out both spaces at the same time.

Then there is the operational cost. Each judge needs two support staff, including a clerk, and two security officers are assigned to the courthouse for each new justice. Swanson said it costs about $400,000 a year to operate each court.

“I think those numbers that were used are on the high end,” said Commission Vice Chairman Jim Saalfeld, an attorney by trade. But Saalfeld also said whatever the final cost turns out to be, it will be a challenge for the commission to come up with the additional dollars.

The circuit court’s annual budget is around $46 million, with roughly $27 million going to personnel costs. The court heard 3,327 criminal cases last year and 1,412 civil cases. The court’s Family Division had 11,582 filings come before it. Saalfeld said the court’s outcomes exceed the state average.

The Judicial Review Committee also reported the county’s 63rd District Court is hoping the state adds another judge to it. Currently, the court has two justices that hear small claims cases under $5,000 and civil suits that are less than $25,000. The county is also responsible for that court’s operation.

The Executive Committee also was updated on the millage situation.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio said a senior millage request is likely to come before voters in August, which may ask for an increase from the current 0.3244 mills to 0.5 mills. Advocates for Senior Services and the Area Agency on Aging in West Michigan are behind that request.

Delabbio also said a request to fund the county’s Veterans Affairs Department could find its way on the November ballot next year. “There is probably going to be more discussion on the veterans millage because there is nothing in place now,” he said.

One idea that has been tossed about is to ask voters to approve 0.25 mills, which would generate about $500,000 annually for the department. Other options have also been discussed including raising the county’s operating millage to its legal limit. Doing that would create an additional $700,000 in revenue. Some commissioners favor that move instead of putting a request on the ballot.

If a request is made to the county, Delabbio said commissioners would likely review it in June. The board would have to approve it by August for the request to make it on the November ballot.

Grand Rapids has a request on the Nov. 5 ballot. The city is asking voters to approve a property-tax increase of 0.98 mills to fund maintenance and improvement of the park system. Other municipalities have bond proposals on the same day.

How voters react to those next month may determine how many county requests go before voters next year.

The county’s millage subcommittee is set to meet two days after the election and is planning to make its recommendations known early next year.

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