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Judges ask county officials to issue verdict

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

(Photo)
McKenzie Shannon (left) and her mother Angie Church work together on decorating a paper stocking during Breakfast with Santa Saturday at Deer Meadow Primary School. Santa Claus was on hand to listen to the children's wish lists as they worked on various Christmas craft projects.
Too much chocolate doesn't sound like a bad thing.

But when the television comedy duo of Lucy and Ethel found the candy factory conveyor belt moving too fast for them to keep up, they ended up stuffing chocolate anywhere they could -- their mouths, pockets, blouses.

That conveyor belt analogy could be applied to the justice system in Putnam County. But as Superior Court Judge Robert Lowe pointed out Monday to other county officials, court cases aren't chocolate and there's nothing funny about stuffing the caseload of three courts into two courts.

"We don't have to end up like Lucy and Ethel," Judge Lowe said. "The only thing we can do is slow down the conveyor belt. But that means the cases keep getting delayed, and that is what has been happening. It's only going to get worse."

Lowe and Circuit Court Judge Matthew Headley made their plea to Putnam County Commissioners Kristina Warren, Gene Beck and Dennis O'Hair for establishing a third court to handle civil cases. And they stressed the need to act fast.

The state deadline to submit new legislation that would create that court is Dec. 15. With the approval of the commissioners and the county council, the process would begin to have that court in place effective Jan. 1, 2009.

In making their case, Lowe and Headley pointed out that the State Committee on Courts has unanimously approved the judges' plan for the third court. A study group of local officials, including two county council members and commissioner Warren, have been discussing the court for several months.

Lowe said he has been working in the county's justice system since Dec. 1, 1980, and he's been on the judge's bench almost 10 years. But, the senior court official said he does not intend to be on the bench Jan. 1, 2009.

"This will not affect me," Lowe said of the third court. "It will affect other office holders. But I know the justice system will suffer if you don't do this. The public will suffer when the justice system doesn't work right. If you don't do this now, it will take until 2011 before you can do this."

Lowe explained that courts are just one stage in the judicial process "assembly line." In Putnam County, a second court was added in 1978. At that time, the courts had 4,986 cases filed. Since then, the courts have seen a 73 percent increase as 8,466 cases were filed in 2005.

He offered several reasons for the increase:

* Population growth of 21 percent from 1990 to 2005.

* Prison expansion from 800 misdemeanants in 1978 to 2,400 felons in 2005.

* A demographics shift from white collar IBM'ers in 1978 to many factory workers now.

* New laws creating new court actions. In 1978, there were no protective orders or domestic battery or invasion of privacy crimes, and no driving over the legal limit.

While the court system has stayed the same with just two courts, other offices along the justice "assembly line" have grown to keep up with the increase in cases, he pointed out.

The prosecutor's office in 1978 had two part-time prosecutors and two part-time secretaries, plus one child support staff person. Today, that office has two full-time prosecutors plus two part-time prosecutors, four support staff and five child support staffers.

The probation office had one officer in 1978 with no support staff. Today, there is an adult division with four probation officers and six staff, and a juvenile division with two officers and one staff.

A new community corrections office has been created with four to five staff members handling people who might otherwise be in jail or on probation.

The sheriff's department, as well as the city and town police departments, have also increased their officer numbers. That means more arrests, tickets and other cases that will make their way through the court system.

Looking at the jail in 1978, it was rated to house 28 inmates. The current jail has 140 inmates, with at least half of those serving sentences or awaiting trial in the Putnam County court system. (The other half are state Department of Correction inmates housed to raise revenue for the county.) Lowe pointed out that the longer a person remains in jail awaiting trial on county charges, the more taxpayer money is used to house that person. Cutting the time that the person waits for trial and sentencing also cuts the cost to taxpayers.

Looking at those figures shows that the assembly line has increased 300-500 percent for other offices and agencies, but the court systems have remained the same. And, Lowe said, there has been only one new staff member added for each court during that time. That's an increase of 33 percent for the courts.

Another measurement to show the overload in the county's court is the state's "weighted caseload" figure. A ranking of 1.0 means a court is working to full capacity, but is not overloaded to fall behind or become inefficient. Putnam County's courts are ranked together at 3.0, doing the work of three courts.

"Two courts can't do the work of three courts," Lowe said. "We can't handle a 73 percent increase in workload with only a 33 percent increase in personnel, while other offices increase by 300-500 percent. If we try, we end up like Lucy and Ethel."

On the civil side of the courts, Lowe said people are frustrated when they come to the court seeking action in a business contract dispute or help in ejecting a delinquent renter. They need a court date to resolve their issue, he said, but the litigants are told it will be 8-10 months before they will have their cases heard.

"That is not pleasant and we get yelled at already, and it's going to get worse," Lowe said. "We simply can't cover all the cases that are coming at us."

The judge also went on to dispute some of the statements from other office holders about adding a third court.

"Creating a new court does not create a single new case," Lowe said. "There are the same number of cases."

That works because the third court will handle only civil cases. That means no extra prosecutors, probation or jail staff to cover the new court.

There will be the need for office staff, equipment and space, however.

Judge Headley said he has modeled the new court off Hendricks County, where two new courts were created last year. The state commission on courts has directed the Putnam County group to follow the Hendricks County model.

Headley showed a spreadsheet for the new superior court showing three court reporters with salaries of $28,000, plus Social Security, retirement and insurance for a total of $44,832 each. Other costs of jury services and mileage, pauper counsel, judicial education and pauper transcripts will bring the personnel costs up to $149,496. Office supplies and equipment were estimated at $15,000. Other services for dues, postage, forms and maintenance were estimated at $6,450. Total yearly expenses were estimated at $170,000.

Headley said that one-time costs for furniture, computers, printers, recording equipment, telephones and copiers were figured at $140,000.

Converting space in the courthouse's first-floor probation department into a courtroom was estimated at $75,000, and converting the existing juvenile courtroom into a jury room was figured at $30,000.

He also figured an additional deputy for the clerk's office at $43,459.

To rent office space for the displaced probation office was figured at $20,000 for a year.

Judge Headley said it is hard to estimate 2009 costs now, so he used current costs.

The best thing to do, he said, would be for the county to build a new courthouse annex and move all non-court offices out of the courthouse.

"That is just one of the options for the future," Headley said.

The commissioners, however, were concerned with the financial projections -- namely, where will the funding come from.

The county could apply for an excess levy to allow more tax money to be collected, but that burden will fall on the taxpayers.

Headley pointed out that the county will have three years to come up with the funding, partially through the cumulative courthouse fund.

Commissioner O'Hair, who noted that he will be leaving office at the end of December, said he was concerned that the judges look at the whole picture of housing county government, and that meant considering the cost of a new courthouse annex.

"I feel it's premature to paint one-quarter of a picture before knowing what the whole picture is looking like," O'Hair said.

Beck pointed out that the county highway garage will be paid off in 2008, and that will free up tax money to be used on an annex. But for now, the county has no money for the project.

Beck also asked why it was essential to move so quickly to establish the court.

Lowe explained that getting the legislation passed in 2007 will mean that the new judge can be elected on the regular election schedule in 2008, to take office in 2009. Any delay would mean the judge could not be elected until the election of 2010 to take office in 2011.

Of course, the governor could appoint a judge if necessary, but county voters should elect who they want to serve on the bench, Lowe said.

The judges agreed that they need the county commissioners and council to approve the third court to make it happen.

But the commissioners appeared to be in no mood to make a quick decision, despite the approaching Dec. 15 deadline.

All three commissioners expressed concern that the county has been dealing with tight finances for the last few years.

" The only thing that bothers me about this whole thing," Beck said, "is that last year at this time, we laid off 17 people because we were short of money. If you have to fire someone .... that's different. But then to come back here and want to raise everyone's taxes, that bothers me."

Warren agreed that even if the commissioners approve the court, they can't make the county council fund it. She suggested that the commissioners meet jointly with the county council on Friday, Dec. 15 during an already scheduled council meeting to discuss the third court possibility. The council is meeting at 9 a.m. in the courthouse annex. The joint session was scheduled for 9:30 a.m.

That last minute planning would still allow the possibility of getting the third court process in motion.

Lowe apologized for pushing the issue, but reminded the commissioners they have been warned for several years that a third court is needed.

"We did wait until the last minute because we knew you were in financially hard times," Lowe said, "and we were hoping that something would happen and the finances would be better. But now, our backs are to the wall."

The judges agreed to pass on their information to the county council members prior to the Dec. 15 meeting. That session in the courthouse annex, 209 W. Liberty St., is open to the public.



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