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Court consolidation advances, savings decline

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Despite reduced expectations for cost savings, a plan to consolidate Ingham County’s district courts is advancing in the face of growing opposition.

A recent Ingham County fiscal analysis by the controller’s office suggests plans to merge district courtrooms in Lansing, East Lansing and Mason into a unified 55th District Court could save, at most, about $230,000 annually. It’s a far cry from estimates that saved local municipalities as much as $1.5 million when the plan was first introduced.

Despite opposition from several district judges, a few attorneys and the NAACP, support for the initiative, led by mayors Andy Schor of Lansing and Mark Meadows of East Lansing, is propelling the long-sought plan. Savings are savings, they explained to City Pulse, even though they are less than first thought.

“This is all up to the mayors to decide, but I’d like to think that saving taxpayer dollars — and we’re still talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars — would still be a good sign,” said 55th Circuit Judge Thomas P. Boyd. “We still have a disjointed system that needs improvement. This is still about better service for less money.”

State legislation passed last year allows city and county officials to consolidate the 54A, 54B and 55th District courts under a single, county-controlled operating system by Nov. 1. The idea: Save cash by eliminating staffing redundancies and better serve local residents by redrawing some inconvenient judicial boundary lines.

Prior plans included the ambitious construction of a courtroom complex to be shared by Lansing and East Lansing and the eventual retirement of 11 to 14 clerical positions. But the idea was scrapped after officials couldn’t hash out a deal to buy a Michigan State University cornfield for the building.

Current plans revolve around “organizational consolidation” without a physical merger. Six or seven jobs could still be cut, but doing so would generate much smaller savings.

“The issue shifted,” Meadows said. “There were much more savings when we were moving in the direction of that shared courthouse, but I just don’t see how that can work anymore. We couldn’t find a plan that seemed to work for everybody. I still think we’re willing to move forward, just now more from a public policy standpoint.”

Rather than focusing exclusively on the bottom line, Meadows is looking at a bigger picture of overall efficiencies through the reorganization of regional caseloads. But the comparatively watered-down savings still isn’t enough to convince some that the plans are worth the effort.

The new “Consolidated District Court Preliminary Fiscal Analysis” from the county controller’s office was posted to the news website eastlansinginfo.org after it was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It estimates that the city of Lansing would receive the largest financial benefit from consolidation, with an expected annual cost savings of $93,000 to $130,000. Ingham County could curb annual costs by $42,000 to $58,000 and East Lansing stands to save $30,000 to $42,000 annually, the report said.

District judges Andrea Larkin and Richard Ball in East Lansing have expressed doubt about the potential savings and have also spoken out against a perceived lack of local control should a new chief judge be assigned over their courtrooms.

Neither could be reached for comment for this story.

Several attorneys on the board of the  Friends of Ingham County Veterans Treatment Court also recently wrote the East Lansing City Council to oppose the merger.

“I just don’t want to start jeopardizing things by changing things,” the group’s president, attorney Larry Salstrom, said. “I think we’re doing a superb job. I don’t think anyone is saying they’d eliminate these courts but I just don’t want the possibility to exist. I just don’t see any type of clear gain to justify this chaotic, reshuffling of our local judicial system.”

Recent feedback surveys from those who used the courtrooms also included rave reviews. Those who left satisfied with the existing level of service ranged from 77% in Lansing to 87% in Mason.

Meadows dismissed the notion that East Lansing’s specialty courts for veterans and those struggling with substance abuse would be jeopardized through consolidation. The idea is “entirely delusional,” he said. Boyd also expected specialty courts — regardless who could eventually become chief judge — to continue as usual.

“The judicial branch is an independent arm of our government,” Meadows added. “This system is supposed to be separate. That’s how it was designed. We don’t need to have local control in our courts. That’s the point.”

While savings might not be as much as expected, an overhaul in caseload organization could still potentially save Lansing and Meridian Township residents an inconvenient drive to Mason to handle their courtroom business, officials explained. And even a few bucks saved on court expenses can help support other government functions.

“Any savings we can use for other services is a positive,” Schor added. “It’s just better government for so many people who literally have to drive right past a courtroom on their way out to Mason. If we can help unify those areas, that’s a convenience for a lot of people. One centralized entity is also going to be much more efficient.”

Consolidation would also shift the eight district court judges into countywide elections. Lansing District Judge Hugh Clarke has argued the out-county, electoral tilt would make it more difficult to elect a person of color to adequately represent minority demographics in cities like East Lansing and Lansing.

“There’s no real savings. There’s no unified complex. Everyone keeps coming up with ideas, but this just isn’t necessary,” Clarke added when reached last week. “If it’s about being convenient for citizens, just let the judges get together and discuss a plan to address the issue. We need to ask them to step aside and let us do this.”

The Lansing branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People also publicly criticized consolidation plans this week because of the “potential to jeopardize diversity on our court benches.”

The track record of a diverse array of Ingham County judicial officials elected since 1980, however, have largely been used to diffuse those arguments. For example, 55th Disctrict Chief Judge Donald Allen, African American, has been elected twice after an initial gubernatorial appointment in 2008.

And while all employees would retain their jobs through consolidation, Clarke has also voiced concern about soon-to-be frozen pay rates for the comparatively higher-paid court staff in Lansing and East Lansing.

The county’s fiscal analysis suggests that under a unified employment system, all courtroom employees would eventually need to shift to a unified pay structure. Staff in Lansing or East Lansing would essentially be denied wage increases until their lower-paid counterparts who work in Mason are able to catch up to the salary scheme.

“They’re trying to pound a 6-inch round peg into a square, 1-inch whole. That’s all this is,” Clarke added. “There’s no reason to do it. It’s not about savings or convenience. It’s not about anything that really matters.”

Argued Meadows: “This doesn’t hurt anybody. It just means they cannot rely on a raise next year unless everybody else is caught up with them. This just helps everyone else. It doesn’t directly hurt anyone.”

District court administrators in both Lansing and East Lansing did not return calls for this story.

Schor said he hopes to bring a proposal to consolidate the 54A District Court with Ingham County — with or without East Lansing on board — to the Lansing City Council before October. City Council members in East Lansing and the Ingham County Board of Commissioners will also have the final say before consolidation can take place.

“That report doesn’t show the savings that were anticipated, that’s true, but we do still see an operational efficiency by putting this all under one organization,” added County Board Chairman Bryan Crenshaw. “I think what’s driving us right now is the efficiency in operations. We can save time and energy in our judicial system.”

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