Thursday, July 23, 2020

Wayne hopes to merge 29th District Court

Facing a looming $3.8 million dollar deficit budget for 2020-2021, City of Wayne officials are again considering the possible merger of their court into that of a neighboring community.
This issue, which has been discussed by various city officials for more than a decade, was once again the agenda topic at a special study session in Wayne last week. Newly-appointed 29th District Court Judge Breeda O'Leary joined the members of the city council and financial consultant Brian Camiller during the meeting. Camiller explained to the officials in attendance that the current city finances will no longer support the costs at the court.
“The city has a severe structural deficit,” he said. “The expenses exceed the ability of the city to generate revenue and this is before the expenses of COVID. It could be even worse,” he said. He said that while the court is a source of revenue, that is in decline. “Costs keep going up,” he said.
He said that financial situation prompted the city to explore the possibility of merging the court with another community. He said the city needed to determine if such an action might be a burden or a savings.
O'Leary responded immediately that while she realized that the members of the council perceive the court as a revenue generator, “the role of the court is to administer justice, not to generate money for the city.”
Mayor John Rhaesa explained that while he understood O'Leary's comments, “We can't afford the court. We are trying to make everything work. We don't have the money.” Rhaesa said that when Judge Laura Mack announced she would retire from the Wayne Court, he had some preliminary, casual conversation with the then mayor of Inkster about merging the courts.
“He said they had an empty courtroom,” Rhaesa said, “I went over and looked at it. I did talk to him but did not pursue negotiations.”
Members of the Wayne City Council approved a resolution in February to explore a possible court merger. Rhasea said it was his understanding that Westland was not interested as it “was not financially sound” and that Romulus had also rejected the suggestion as not financially beneficial. Romulus officials, Rhaesa said, had provided a copy of the host agreement the city has with Belleville, Sumpter and Van Buren for consideration. Rhaesa and O'Leary agreed that both were informed that a merger with the Romulus Court was now “off the table,” as was any further negotiation with the 18th District Court in Westland, where judges have consistently rejected merger overtures from Wayne for more than a decade.
In discussing any potential merger with the Inkster court, Rhaesa, along with several members of the council, questioned the rumored state regulation which requires any merger of district courts be in contiguous communities. O'Leary said she had not done any research personally on the question but offered suggestions as to court authorities and agencies the city could ask in writing for any such ruling. City Manager Lisa Nocerini said that she had attempted to research the law, but could not find any determining statute which would require the communities to be contiguous.
O'Leary explained that the merging of courts would need some legislative action at the state level as it would create a new voting base for election of judges. O'Leary reiterated her concern with the financial information presented to the council and detailed numerous cost-saving items which were not included in the numbers. “That is not reliable information,” she said.
Camiller explained that the numbers and totals were simply examples and not intended as the final calculations.
“Any such agreement is still the object of negotiation,” he said. He reminded the members of the council that the Romulus court wanted to assume the workload but did not want another judge. Officials commented that preliminary talks with Westland had included adding a judge to that court which currently has two full-time judges and a magistrate.
O'Leary explained that the courts were now using zoom and other methods for many court procedures and that this is also a cost savings measure, both for the courts and for the respective police departments. She suggested that perhaps, in light of these new procedures, the opinions about a merger with the Westland or Romulus courts may have changed.

Camiller agreed noting that COVID may have changed the opinions and practices of court.
Mayor Pro tem Tom Porter noted that while both Wayne and Romulus officials were willing to consider a merger and both rejected the proposal, council should take another look at the issue.
“We should consider the people here, citizens having to drive along with police transporting (prisoners). There is no reason we can't go back and speak with them,” he said of the suggestion to again approach the neighboring courts.
O'Leary said that she would attempt to contact the judges in the two communities to see if any discussion would be of interest. She suggested such a conversation would be far more productive if she had accurate case-load and financial data from the courts to analyze costs and benefits in an effort to show officials that the merger could be a sound financial decision for them, as well as Wayne.
Rhaesa asked O'Leary if she could have the report at the next meeting of the council at the end of the month. O'Leary agreed and said that current court administrator Linda Gable would be able to work on compiling the data.
In closing, O'Leary reminded the members of the council of the number of measures that have already been taken at the court to control expenses including the scheduling of police officers on their regular shifts so as not to incur overtime costs.
“Other courts may not take many of these things into consideration,” she said.