Group hears of high cost for local justice

March 25, 2012
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The Community Collaboration Work Group, which was formed by Kent County as a response to the consolidation challenge issued by the One Kent Coalition last year, learned that the county and the city of Grand Rapids will collectively spend about $76 million this year on their respective portions of the state-mandated court system.

County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio told the panel that funding for the 17th Circuit Court, the Probate Court and the 63rd District Court, which are under the county’s jurisdiction, will total $62 million in 2012, and nearly $34 million of that will come from Kent’s general operating budget.

Delabbio said 55 percent of all the courts’ cost is covered by the county while the rest comes from the state and Grand Rapids, which leases space in the county-owned courthouse for its 61st District Court.

Grand Rapids CFO Scott Buhrer told the work group that it costs the city $14 million annually to run its district court; $5.6 million of that amount comes from its general fund and capital improvement budget, which receive general tax dollars.

Buhrer also said the state gives the city $270,000 a year for what Lansing calls “judges standardization.” He explained the term means the state doesn’t pay the judges’ salaries, but it helps to defray those costs with that payment.

“The price of justice is very high,” said Grand Rapids City Manager Greg Sundstrom. Sundstrom added that every taxpayer in the county pays roughly $100 a year to support the court system, and for city residents that cost comes to $85 annually. He said residents in other cities, like Kentwood, Wyoming, Grandville and Walker, also pay for their district courts.

The courts were on the work group’s docket to give the panel’s members examples of collaboration and consolidation. While the terms sound similar, the meanings aren’t identical, even though both strive to save costs by sharing expenditures. Consolidation, though, usually only occurs in order to end a duplication of a service, while a collaborative effort normally shares the cost of a service.

County Assistant Administrator Mary Swanson said consolidation is based on one infrastructure as opposed to a collaboration’s joint infrastructure, has a single dedicated funding and decision-making source rather than a shared one, and results in an intergovernmental agreement instead of a contract for services.

“It is an important distinction because when you’re talking consolidation, you’re talking about duplicative services. When you’re talking collaboration, you’re talking about shared services,” said Jim Saalfeld, a county commissioner and chairman of the work group.

County Corporate Counsel Dan Ophoff said one judicial example of collaboration is the agreement the county made with Grand Rapids that allowed the city to locate its district court in the courthouse after the former Hall of Justice, a city-owned building, was razed for DeVos Place. Doing so saved the city from buying a building for its court, and the county used the revenue from the city to lower its operational costs for the courthouse.

Ophoff said one model of judicial consolidation occurred a few years ago when the county brought its district court together by moving it from two locations — Rockford and Cascade Township — into a single court building in Grand Rapids Township.

“Did it save money right at the outset? Probably not, but it will for years to come,” said Saalfeld of that move, which initially drew criticism. But 63rd District Court Judge Sara Smolinski recently said the change has worked out for the best, and everyone involved seems pleased with the decision to consolidate.

“But it was an expensive proposition for Kent County,” said Ophoff. “Right now, we have a single facility that will be good for years. We have an example of how cooperation and consolidation can work in Kent County.”

Saalfeld asked if all the district courts in the county could be consolidated into one. Ophoff said state statute does allow for that to happen.

“The issue of consolidation or collaboration is not a new topic,” Ophoff said, adding that both have been discussed in the judicial realm for years, but most talks have come to a halt when judges have expressed concerns about their duties in a combined court.

In addition to collaboration and consolidation, there are two other levels of service sharing. Swanson said one is cooperation where information, not resources, is generally shared and no formal agreement is arrived at. The primary goal of cooperation is to improve a service. The other is coordination, which involves shared resources, joint planning and a memorandum of understanding. The objective here is to avoid additional costs.

More discussion along this line is expected at the group’s next meeting in April. Grand Rapids Township Supervisor Michael DeVries suggested that the city and the county produce data on who pays judicial fines and court costs and who gets the revenue from both for that meeting.

“You can’t just come in and say, ‘Let’s do this.’ You’ve got to understand the background and know the funding,” said Saalfeld of the purpose for focusing on the courts.

Saalfeld added that the intent behind putting the group together wasn’t for its members to find specific areas for collaboration or consolidation, but to help set the table by pointing out opportunities. “I don’t necessarily expect that the group is going to say township X is going to come together with city Y and do this.”

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