The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 29, 2013

Conneaut council looks at need for Municipal Court

Star Beacon

CONNEAUT —  City Council, at Monday night’s meeting, authorized a letter that requests a state analysis of Conneaut’s Municipal Court to determine the need for the local court.

The letter, to be signed by Council President Thomas Udell, will be directed to the administrative director of Ohio’s Supreme Court and will request a review. The city’s desire to cut costs wherever possible prompted the action, said City Manager Tim Eggleston.

Also during the meeting, Eggleston said he has conferred with Ashtabula County commissioners and the county’s Bar Association on the matter, indicating other courts could be impacted.

At issue is a council directive to administrators to come up with any ideas to assist the city’s floundering budget. In reviewing options, administrators learned only two municipal operations — the local court and health department — do not fall under the city’s control, Eggelston said.

 The city spends about $330,000 annually to “shore up” the municipal court’s budget, he said. He did not mention any revenue the city receives from fines and fees levied by the court.

A study can be controversial, Eggleston said. “It can be a political issue to some,” he said.

Council voted 7-0 to seek the Ohio Supreme Court analysis, with members saying the study will provide the hard numbers needed to make hard choices.

“The process will stay data-driven,” said Ward 1 Councilman Doug Hedrick. “The more data we have, the better off we’ll be. There are tough decisions to be made, and they must be data-driven.”

If the study shows Conneaut does not need its own Municipal Court, consolidation could be an option, officials said. Any final decision involving the local court will come from the state level, not from local officials, Eggleston said. 

The Ohio Supreme Court survey will take more than two months to complete once it begins and only launches the entire court-review process, Eggleston said.

“It’s the first of several steps,” he said.

If survey results support a change, the entire process could involve two additional years, he said.

Conneaut, like other communities, is trying to cope with drastic cuts to local government funds from the state and the loss of inheritance taxes. Combined, the city will lose more than $400,000 this year, said Finance Director John Williams.

Recent gains in other revenue streams, such as municipal income tax as reported earlier this month, only help to keep the city afloat financially and do nothing to improve the budget, he said.

Council said the survey offers a chance to gather facts. The end result could show Conneaut benefits from having its own court, members said.

Still, the city cannot stand pat and rely on its carry-over balance to keep the wolf from the door, said Councilman-at-large Neil LaRusch. Every financial option must be investigated, he said.

“We’re at the breaking point,” he said.

Two of Ashtabula County’s three cities -- Ashtabula and Conneaut -- have municipal courts. Geneva’s judicial needs are handled by Western County court, which operates in that city.