The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 31, 2013

City manager defends survey of Conneaut Municipal Court

By MARK TODD - mtodd@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

CONNEAUT — Both sides on the Conneaut Municipal Court consolidation issue fired volleys Wednesday, with City Manager Tim Eggleston claiming that people are rushing to judgment, and Judge Thomas Harris maintaining he has never conferred with the manager on the issue.

“It is easy to disparage a decision without the facts to sway public opinion, as we see all too often,” Eggleston said in a statement he issued Wednesday.

At issue is City Council’s interest in an Ohio Supreme Court analysis of the court to gauge its efficiency or whether it could be consolidated. Council, looking for ways to cut costs, authorized a request to the court earlier this week.

On Wednesday, Harris said Eggleston has never conferred with him on the issue or invited him to participate in meetings. Harris said he had to learn of the initiative in mid-December from John Patterson, who was elected to the 99th House district in November.

“If (Eggleston) wanted to (talk), he can come on down the hall (at City Hall),” Harris said. “I’m always willing to meet.”

Council, worried about a loss of revenue caused by cuts in state funding, has directed administrators to explore every idea money-saving suggestion. Officials’ gaze has fallen on the 84-year-old municipal court, which over the past 12 years has run at a $1.67 million deficit, a sum that has been absorbed by the city’s general fund.

All the furor the survey has kicked up since it was authorized Monday is unwarranted, since the city is merely on a fact-finding mission, Eggleston said. Results from the Ohio Supreme Court’s data analysis could actually make a case for a local court, he said.

Still, the city is obliged to research the matter, Eggleston said.

The survey, which is primarily a review of data the court provides Columbus, could take a couple months to complete, officials have said.

“This is a dollars and cents issue,” he said in the statement. “Services have been cut in all departments and there are fewer police officers on the road. The city’s expenditures exceed (revenues).”

Without a drastic overhaul of the budget, more cuts are ahead, he said in the statement.

“It is a very good possibility that some jobs will be lost next year,” Eggleston said in the statement. “It comes down to which ones.”

Eggleston applauded council for authorizing the survey, saying members are “standing tall in making this hard decision.” “It is hard for some to separate politics from fiscal responsibility to the citizens,” he said in the statement.

The city chose this time for a data study because Harris’ term expires at the end of this year, Eggleston said in the statement.

Harris has said he is sensitive to the city’s plight, reducing costs and cutting staff through attrition. When Harris took office more than 24 years ago, the court had four deputy clerks, he said. Now there are two, in addition to a baliff and clerk of courts.

The loss of a local court could also require police to travel distances out of town to handle routine legal proceedings, depleting patrols, Harris said. Other violations that begin their legal journey in Conneaut would be similarly inconvenienced, he said.

A vacancy created last year has not been filled, despite a criminal case load that has skyrocketed, he said. A municipal court is a government service that requires dollars to provides, just like public schools, Harris said this week.

If the pending survey shows room for improvement, the push for change would have to originate with the Ohio Supreme Court or state lawmakers, officials have said.