The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

Local News

November 29, 2012

Common pleas caseloads up in Ashtabula County — so is budget request

JEFFERSON — Ashtabula County’s three Common Pleas judges want nearly $200,000 more to run the court in 2013 than they received this  year.

Court Administrator Marianne Sezon and judges Al Mackey, Ron Vettel and Gary Yost presented the request during a public budget hearing before the board of commissioners Wednesday. Sezon told the board that they are requesting $707,159 for salaries and wages for 2013, which is about $170,000 more than the 2012 allocation. She said the increase reflects a 3 percent pay hike for staff, but most of it is due to shifting some employees off the court’s special projects funding and onto the general fund.

Courts are allowed to use a portion of the fees they collect to fund special projects, such as security, computers and mediation. Increasingly, those funds have been used to cover wages, as well, when general fund allocations were cut due to declining county revenues.

“It’s an amount we’ve picked up in our special projects fund for several years now,” Sezon told the board of their request. “We’re asking that it be paid out of the general fund.”

Vettel told the board that there are limitations on what can be funded with special projects money, and he is concerned that auditors will start questioning the county’s liberal use of the money for salaries.

“One of these days, we’re going to get audited ... if this continues, we’ll be questioned if we can use this for salaries,” Vettel said.

Sezon pointed out that the Common Pleas special projects funds were used to implement an imaging system that also benefits the Eastern and Western county courts. And the fund provides security for the entire courthouse complex at a cost of $214,000 annually. Special projects money also funds a portion of the court’s mediation project, which has helped many homeowners facing foreclosure work out a deal with lenders.

Mackey said the volume of both foreclosures and criminal cases is putting an excessive load on the court, as well as the clerk of court’s office. He said the county had 110 foreclosure filings in 1995; as of Oct. 1, there were 523 and he expects the year to end with 700 filings.

The number of felony cases, which involve multiple court appearances, also has grown dramatically. In 1996, there were 228 criminal cases for the entire year. Through the end of October of this year, the number stood at 639 cases and Mackey feels it will most likely be near 800 by the end of the year.

He said criminal cases are very demanding on the judges’ time. “In criminal cases, the judge is the only one who can do the work,” Yost said. “Other cases can use a magistrate, but on criminal cases, the judge makes all the decisions.”

Vettel said it’s not unusual to spend two or three days on one criminal case.

“I got two murder cases on my docket right now,” he said.

Despite the increased burden on the courts, the budget request does not seek funding to add personnel. Freeing up special projects money can give the courts the resources to add technology that will make the courts operate more efficiently, however.

“The key is to upgrade technology, make it more efficient,” Commissioner Peggy Carlo said.

Commissioners did not make any promises that the court’s request will be honored, however.

“Our (revenue) situation really has not changed dramatically over the past few years,” Commissioner Joe Moroski told the judges.

Courts have the option of journalizing their budget request and thus force the board to fund the budget. Commissioner Dan Claypool said that action has not been taken by the judges this year.

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