By Sue Botos
Rocky River Municipal Court officials expected the drop in caseloads after the establishment of the North Olmsted Mayor’s Court in January. While they anticipated keeping the court self-sufficient, they didn’t expect assets of $183,667.27 as of Aug. 31.
“This is absolutely remarkable,” commented Clerk of Court Deborah Comery during the Sept. 9 City Council session. She told council that a combination of frugality and the trimming of employee payroll has kept the court in the black, despite the fact that most of North Olmsted’s nontrial cases, formerly presented in the municipal court, are now heard by that city’s mayor’s court.
The municipal court serves the cities of Rocky River, Fairview Park, Bay Village and Westlake. Judges Brian Hagan and Donna Congeni Fitzsimmons still preside over felony cases from North Olmsted.
“Life after the mayor’s court has been interesting,” Comery said, adding that “severe budget adjustments” had occurred as a result. She told Westlife that the court is down 11 full- and part-time employees, who probably will not be replaced, while remaining workers had at least a salary freeze, and most, a decrease in compensation. The reduction of staff amounted to over $200,000 in savings.
In addition, she said, the salaries of some employees were removed from the general fund and placed into several specialized funds. “We want to put all employees back into the operating budget,” Comery said. City administrators are already gearing up for the 2014 budget, and Comery anticipates presenting a financial plan without using special funds for salaries.
Answering a question by Councilman at Large Dave Furry, Comery explained that under court statute, employees can be paid by funds other than the operating budget. For example, she said two probation department employees are being compensated from that department’s fund.
Comery noted that since 1997 the court has been self-sufficient, requiring no taxpayer support. “We want to have enough in the budget at the end of the year so we are not a burden to our host city,” she stated. She said that the goal is to have $60,000 to $70,000 in the coffers by December.
While the court has remained on the plus side financially, the forecast of a one-third drop in caseload was “pretty spot on,” according to Comery. She reported that criminal cases have dropped by 33 percent and civil cases by 32 percent.
Comery said that an improvement in the fee collection procedure has lessened the effect of this case reduction. Fitzsimmons agreed, telling Westlife, “Our operational budget as of Sept. 9, 2013, shows that our caseload is actually down 33 percent, but we are approximately 10 percent down in revenues – partially because we have focused in improving our efficiency in collections.”
Fitzsimmons added that due to a “commitment to cutting spending” and last year’s layoffs, the goal of a 30-percent reduction in operating expense has been reached. “Our year-to-date operating expenses are approximately $495,000 less than they were (last year).”
The fact that the Rocky River Municipal Court requires no outside funding is not a common situation, according to Comery. “There are precious few courts in the state who are self-funded,” she stated, adding that the Ohio Supreme Court has formed a task force on municipal court funding. “All, for the most part, operate off of tax dollars,” she stated, referring to the Rocky River situation as a “pleasurable bubble.”
“Usually there is much angst between courts and the cities in which they sit,” she stated.
Mayor Pam Bobst gave Comery as well as Hagan and Fitzsimmons credit for being proactive. “They didn’t just sit and wait. They were already reacting to what would be a downturn in caseloads,” she remarked.