The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 30, 2013

Judge Harris ‘surprised’ by call for Conneaut Municipal Court analysis

By MARK TODD - mtodd@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

CONNEAUT — Conneaut’s interest in consolidating its municipal court to save money came as a jolt to one important person in the process — the court’s judge, Thomas Harris.

“I was surprised by it,” Harris said Tuesday morning, hours after City Council unanimously requested a study of the court by the Ohio Supreme Court.

Harris said he heard rumblings about his court in mid-December, but didn’t receive any documents regarding the analysis until City Manager Tim Eggleston forwarded a copy of the letter to the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday.

“(Eggleston) had not copied me anything until (Tuesday morning),” Harris said. “It’s the first and only thing he has sent.”

On Monday night, council authorized President Thomas Udell to send a letter to Steve Hallon, the high court’s administrative director, asking Columbus “to review and evaluate the caseload and economic viability of having a municipal court in the city of Conneaut,” according to the letter. Harris’ term expires at the end of the year, providing an opportunity for such an inspection, according to the letter.

If the Ohio Supreme Court agrees to the survey, the case management division will spearhead the study, Bret Crow, spokesman, said Tuesday. The most common requests come from communities seeking to add a judge to their court, he said.

The survey will include an analysis of data Conneaut Municipal Court and every other court routinely submit to Columbus, Crow said. Other factors are considered, too, he said.

“We try to do a comprehensive review of all the angles,” he said.

In some cases, changes to courts require legislation approved by the General Assembly, Crow said.

Money, not the management of the court, motivates the Conneaut study. Council, worried about the budget, has directed Eggleston to investigate every possible way to cut costs. One option is municipal court, which relies heavily on the city’s general fund. Over the past 12 years, expenses paid out of the general fund have outpaced revenue into the fund, according to data provided by the city’s finance office.

Last year, the fund collected $189,850 in grant monies, jail charges, wedding fees, fines, court costs and highway fines, but paid out $363,555 in personnel, operating expenses, operating costs and capital expenditures. Over 12 years, the local court has recorded a $1.67 million deficit, according to data.

Harris said courts are a government service, just like many others, that cost money to provide.

“The vast majority of courts and judges cost their funding authorities money,” he said. “Courts cost money, schools cost money.”

While the court is not meant to be a money-making operation, curveballs tossed Conneaut’s way in recent years have hurt revenue collected by the court, Harris said. For three years, the truck weigh scales on Interstate 90 were closed, resulting in zero overload fines in 2008 and 2010, and just $424 in 2009. The fines jumped to nearly $33,000 in 2011, but fell back to less than $12,000 last year — coinciding with a massive I-90 repair project that rerouted lanes in the city.

“The construction on I-90 hasn’t helped, closing the scales haven’t helped and the Pre-Pass program (used by truckers to legally bypass weigh scales) haven’t helped,” Harris said.

Personnel expenses have stabilized despite a growing case load, especially in the criminal division, Harris said.

Several factors point to a “desperate need to have a local court,” Harris said. Conneaut sits isolated in the northeast corner of the county, he said. If the court should disappear, and people need to handle their legal business in Jefferson, the county seat sits 21 miles from Conneaut. The city has somehow managed to provide a municipal court for 84 years, including the lean years of the Great Depression and World War II, Harris said.

If the Conneaut court is consolidated, there’s speculation it would be blended into an existing county court. Joe Moroski, Ashtabula County Board of Commissioners’ president, said it’s “absolutely way too early” to draw conclusions about the impact on the county budget. Instead, results from the Supreme Court survey will help determine the county’s next step, he said Tuesday.

Consolidation of services is a hot topic in government, Moroski said. “You’re going to see more of this as time goes on,” he said.

Nicholas Iarocci, president of the Ashtabula County Bar Association, said his organization will likewise be interested in the data the survey provides before taking a position. However, Iarocci said a more widespread would be beneficial.

“If we want to improve efficiency, perhaps a county-wide review is in order,” he said.