As expenses mount, municipalities weigh worth of town courts
By Teresa Auch Schultz firstname.lastname@example.org December 25, 2012 3:34PM
Signs taped to the counter indicated court costs and fees as clerk Cathi Tracy works at the Crown Point City Court Clerks Office in Crown Point, Ind. Tuesday November 20, 2012. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
According to the Indiana Judicial Service Report for 2011, Lake County’s 10 city and town courts spent a total of $4.3 million but took in $6.2 million in revenue. They took in $2.048 million that went right back into the local coffers, including:
Crown Point — $264,420 in expenses, $147,216 in revenue
East Chicago — $523,860 in expenses, $155,166 in revenue
Gary — $1.431 million in expenses, $327,528 in revenue
Hammond — $756,096 in expenses, $370,175 in revenue
Hobart — $327,366 in expenses, $147,106 in revenue
Lake Station — $99,232 in expenses, $1,989 in revenue
Whiting — $148,781 in expenses, $34,933 in revenue
Merrillville — $386,302 in expenses, $429,108 in revenue
Schererville — $327,116 in expenses, $280,509 in revenue
Lowell — $59,446 in expenses, $155,184 in revenue
Updated: December 25, 2012 9:53PM
About 100 people gathered on a Thursday night at the Merrillville Town Court, as they do every week, to go before a judge on their various traffic tickets and other infractions.
One after one went forward, with many being offered a spot in a deferral program or being told how much money they owed to pay their ticket.
Those fines and fees will eventually be split between Merrillville, Lake County and the state government, just as all town and city courts split their revenues.
Although most of the fines ordered this Thursday didn’t go above $200, they do add up. Last year, court fees residents paid totaled almost $1 million — far more than the $386,302 that the town spent to run the court.
Merrillville’s portion alone was enough to cover its cost, taking in $429,108.
It’s not the only local court to support itself either. According to the Indiana Judicial Service Report for 2011, several town and city courts in Lake County are essentially self-funded, and almost all of them bring more money to the county’s and state’s coffers than they spend.
The report comes at a time when officials across the state still talk about ways to consolidate Indiana’s court system, with one option being to eliminate the town and city courts altogether.
Making money isn’t the only goal
That possibility is not new to the city and town judges in Lake County, who have defended their existence before. The county has one of the largest concentration of town and city courts in the state with 10. The state has 70 city and town courts total.
Gary Judge Deidre Monroe defended her court, noting that it allows citizens to bring issues before a judge in their own community, instead of having to drive out to Crown Point. She also offers a mental health court and other social services, along with the normal traffic and small civil cases.
“The community strongly supports my court,” Monroe said.
Her court, which spent $1.4 million in 2011, does not make enough in local revenue to sustain itself. But it did bring in some money — $327,528 — to cover some of the costs. It also generated more than $600,000 in revenue for the state and county.
“Of course the courts are not here to generate money, but do they? Yes,” she said. “... We are constantly looking at ways to make more money.”
Crown Point Judge Kent Jeffirs also stressed that people need to remember courts should not be seen as a source of revenue for government. At the same time, they owe a responsibility to their citizens to try and be fiscally responsible, which includes trying to be self-sustaining.
He’s studied the issue for his own court and found that when looking at how much the court spent from 2004 to 2010 from the city’s General Fund versus how much it put back, the court paid for a majority of its own costs. When he factored in revenue that went to other funds that helped offset costs to the General Fund, the Crown Point court actually came out ahead for 2009 and 2010.
He credits that net income with taking advantage of several fines and programs allowed by state law, such as deferral programs and late fees.
He noted that it’s difficult for any court to reach that point, especially county courts because they deal with much more costly felony cases. But local courts can support themselves by taking similar steps, he said.
“It’s not easy,” he said. “I’ve worked very hard.”
Are there too many courts?
Money isn’t the only, or even the main, reason to eliminate town and city courts in the state. Officials within the Indiana judicial system have often cited the complex web of courts throughout the state, which also include circuit, superior, small claims and probate courts. A report issued several years ago by the state’s Judicial Conference for Strategic Planning said the system causes confusion as to which court has jurisdiction and noted that town and city court judges don’t even have to be attorneys.
Money has been an issue, however. Although a statewide proposal has gone nowhere, several cities and towns across the state have elected to end their courts, citing monetary concerns. Knightstown voted last year to close its court because of finances, and six more have shut down since 2011.
The town and city courts do cost money. In Lake County, the 10 courts spent $4.3 million, money which came from their respective towns and cities during a time when most governments continued tightening their belts.
However, Jeffirs said, people need to also consider the cost that would hit counties if they had to take on all the cases the local courts handled. In Lake County, almost 81,000 new cases were filed in 2011 with the town and city courts, on top of more than 238,000 cases that were already pending. Jeffirs said he figured the county would need about four new courts — plus all the employees — to take on those cases.
“That’s like opening the flood gates and destroying a lot of what’s in place,” Jeffirs said.
In the current system, the state and county don’t spend money on the local courts; instead, they see pure revenue from the courts. Lake County took in $1.043 million from all of them in 2011, and the state saw $3.1 million from them in the same time period. Total, the local courts had about $6.2 million of revenue in 2011.
The Crown Point judge said he’s not against changes to the state’s system to help unify the courts — he just thinks that local courts should still be part of that system.
Easier for residents to use
For now, Lake County’s local courts will continue to operate, and people like Merrillville residents Antoine Koonce can still go to them to fight their speeding tickets. Koonce appeared at the most recent Thursday court in Merrillville after getting a speeding ticket on 61st Avenue near the Interstate 65 exit.
Unlike most people who appeared that day with a speeding ticket, Koonce declined the offer of a deferral program, which costs a little more than the ticket does. Koonce said after the hearing he was caught by a speed trap.
“I don’t think that’s just,” he said.
He questioned the deferral program, saying that it seemed like a way for the town to make more money off of people.
“It seems like the town is just ripping you off the minute you walk in,” he said.
His trial is set for January.
Not everyone at Thursday’s hearing had to pay a fine, though. After getting caught with a burnt-out light, Gary resident Duane Stanfield promised the court he had replaced the old light. He was let go without a fine.
Stanfield, who said he’s never had to come to court before, said he would prefer not to be there. But if he had to go, Stanfield said, he was happy that he could go to Merrillville, instead of driving even farther to Crown Point.
“I’d rather come here because I know exactly where it’s at,” he said.