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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Request to create third court defeated

Monday, December 18, 2006

Employees of F.B. Distro, including Tina Newnam (middle) and Maryland Jellison (right) recently collected diapers and other items for Putnam County Family Support Services. On hand to receive the donation was Mary Anne Martin (left) with Health Families.
A request to create a third court in Putnam County to ease judicial congestion has died at the hands of the Putnam County Council.

Local attorneys and judges presented their case to the council and the county commissioners during a joint session of those boards Friday, the final day for legislation to create the court to be submitted at the Indiana Statehouse. If the third court was not created by the legislature in 2007, it could not go through the 2008 election process for a judge to take the bench in 2009. The next opportunity for election will be 2010, with the judge taking the bench in 2011.

Commissioners Dennis O'Hair, Gene Beck and Kristina Warren had heard the plea from Judges Robert Lowe and Matt Headley just days earlier. Council members Don Walton, Darrel Thomas, Mitch Proctor, Larry Parker and Jay Fogle also received supporting information Friday from attorneys Jeff Boggess and Del Brewer.

The courts are now so overloaded with cases, Boggess said, that the civil matters to be taken over by a third court do not now receive the prompt attention they need.

"There is a tremendous societal cost for not having the things in government we need," he said. The overloaded courts affect people who are owed child support, who pay too much child support, small businesses that are owned money, landlords and tenants with disputes, and others who need a timely resolution to their cases.

On the criminal side, he said, the verdict in an attempted murder case is under attack in the higher courts due to the time it took to get that case through the local court system. The local decision may be overturned because the case could not be tried within the time limit.

"I understand it is expensive," Boggess said of creating the third court, "but I ask on behalf of the public for you to consider funding it."

Brewer, who worked 22 years in the prosecutor's office, said things have changed considerably since 1979 when he conducted the county's business from his own personal office. The number of criminal and civil cases has grown, but the resources to handle those cases has not kept pace.

Judge Headley urged the county leaders to find the resources to pay for the new court. He and Judge Lowe had requested that the new court take over the first floor courthouse space now occupied by the adult probation department.

Headley presented cost estimates for the renovation of the probation space, and also the personnel costs expected with the addition of the court. He estimated the cost of operating the court at $170,000 annually, renovation costs at around $100,000, and one-time equipment costs at $80,000.

"There has always been opposition to past building projects," Headley said, citing construction of the courthouse in 1905, the hospital in the 1920s and 1970s, the new jail and highway garage in the 1990s.

"I don't think we are asking anything out of the ordinary," he said. "No one likes new taxes. We've looked at the affect on taxes, and on a $100,000 house, this will add $8-$12 per year to a tax bill."

Knowing the finances of the issue would be the main issue for both boards, he gave suggestions for how the county could afford the third court or a courthouse annex to house it.

Among those suggestions were renting the former LoBill grocery building and its adjoining store to house some of the non-court offices now in the courthouse, or selling the county home property, and selling the county hospital.

Such creative thinking won the compliment of commissioner O'Hair, who said some of those suggestions, such as selling the hospital or county home property, have been political taboo in the past.

O'Hair said people who have presented those suggestions have been ridiculed and browbeaten.

"Judge Headley told it like it is," O'Hair said. "I am so happy there are people like Judge Headley out there who are going to speak up and tell it like it is."

Seven years ago, O'Hair said, the county leaders knew the courthouse annex needed to be replaced, but they didn't do anything about it due to finances. Now the building is in bad shape and is becoming a money pit.

Council member Thomas commended the financial estimates Headley brought for the project.

"I think what we have here is the first time in a long time, or at all, that we've got something in black and white that shows what the possibilities might be," Thomas said. "And I think we need to take some of this and run with it, before we get caught, before the boiler here (in the annex) gets to the point we can't fix it, or the utilities here get to the point we can't afford it. I'm not saying we need to build a new building, but to some extent, this building here is an albatross. The new court is the first foot in the door to solving some of these problems."

Finding the funding for the third court and the facility improvements was a recurring concern among both the commissioners and council.

Warren said to fund the new court, the county would have to raise property taxes. She said she had heard a lot of comments from residents of the South Putnam school district who have seen their taxes rise to cover errors made in the past. Asking those people to take another tax increase might be too much.

She noted that the new court, which would not go into operation until 2009, could get some funding after the highway garage construction is paid off in 2008. However, any tax increase allowed by the state might not be enough to cover the operation of the court.

When it came to a vote for the commissioners, Warren made the motion to approve the court, and received a second from O'Hair. Both said they were originally against the request, but Friday's arguments changed their mind, especially the statements from Boggess. The vote came to 2-1, with Beck saying he could not support the project at this time.

With the approval of the commissioners, the issue then needed approval from the council as well before the legislation could be introduced.

But funding was also the hold-up for council members Parker, Walton and Fogle. A motion came from Thomas to support the request, and Proctor added a second to bring the matter to a vote. The issue died with a 2-3 vote. Council members Richard Lyon and Keith Berry were absent for the vote.

With the voting concluded, commissioner Beck said he still feels the county needs to consider building a new courthouse annex due to the bad condition of the current buildings.

Council member Parker said he knows the court is needed, but the uncertainty of what the state will do for funding even the current budget, let alone a new court, led him against the request.

"You never know what (the state) is going to do," Headley responded, "but you've got to make a leap of faith sometime."

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