Court Consolidation Welcomed

March 17, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Amid the recent controversy surrounding Kent County’s intention to relocate and consolidate the 63rd District Court, at least one high-level administrator is looking forward to the day the change is in place.

Dona Gillson, 63rd District court administrator, told members of the county’s Legislative and Human Resources Committee last week the consolidation should help with the additional caseloads the Rockford and Cascade Township courthouses have recently had.

“We’re busier than last year by about 5,000 cases,” she said. “Both courts could use additional help, but right now I don’t have any place to put anybody.”

Gillson said the court had a 5 percent increase in criminal cases last year, while traffic in civil disputes grew by 37 percent or 3,039 cases. She said most of the hike in civil cases were a reflection of a bad economy, as more credit card companies and lenders sued for payments last year than in previous years. Gillson said the courts processed 235 cases last year just over defaults on land contracts, and also more small-claims cases.

“My civil clerks have been very busy,” she said.

Gillson said the new 40,000-square-foot courthouse the county plans to build on Knapp Street NE just east of the East Beltline would offer the courts more room and allow her to make staff changes that she felt would be better able to handle a higher caseload. The county agreed to buy 5.3 acres of a former apple orchard from Grand Rapids Township in January, a transaction that has been criticized by 63rd District Court Judge Steven Servaas.

Servaas complained that the new courthouse site was outside of the northern district, the district he serves from the Rockford court, and said he didn’t have to move from his current location because he didn’t approve the consolidation plan.

But 63rd District Court Chief Judge Sara Smolenski, who oversees the southern district from Cascade Township, took issue with that assessment.

“The law provides that each judge of the district shall sit at places within the district as the Chief Judge designates,” said Smolenski last month.

“It has come to my attention that District Judge Steven Servaas believes that state law affords him both the legal authority to approve any proposed consolidation of the court and the legal right to refuse a move from the current location in Rockford to the proposed location in Grand Rapids Township. As demonstrated by my recitations of controlling law, I disagree with his position.”

The county is expected to spend $1.52 million for the site once the deal closes and due diligence is completed. The construction cost of the new courthouse, which is projected to have three courtrooms, has been estimated at $6 million.

Gillson told committee members that total revenue to the court was about $4 million in 2007, a figure that still was down by about 1 percent from 2006. She said the 22,094 cases the court heard had an assessed value of $3.9 million in revenue for the district. But Gillson also said the court was only able to collect fines and costs from 84 percent of those cases and just 67 percent of the total revenue those cases represented.

“The economy has a lot to do with revenues being down this year,” she said, while adding that many residents can’t afford to pay fines and court costs.

Gillson also told the committee that security was improved at the Cascade court when a magnetometer, a device that measures magnetic fields, was installed to screen visitors to the building. About 67,600 persons went through the court’s security measures last year. She said the device detected 847 blades and knives that visitors had with them, and 15 of those were larger than the law permits.

“It certainly has provided us with a sense of security, at least at the Cascade court,” she said.

Committee Chairman and County Commissioner Dean Agee asked Gillson why the court in Rockford didn’t have one and she said Servaas didn’t feel the device was needed. Gillson said the staff at the Cascade court asked for one and Smolenski OK’d it.

Gillson oversees 32 full-time and 5 part-time employees, and the court has a 2008 budget of $2.9 million.

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