Court consolidation: An issue Mahoning County must face

With Mahoning County government battling to stave off a declaration of fiscal emergency by the state, commissioners David Ludt, John McNally IV and Anthony Traficanti are to meet shortly with the four county court judges to discuss ... the construction of a new court facility?
When we read that one of the options to be explored during the meeting is a new building to house the four courts, we were taken aback, to say the least. After all, we saw the word "consolidation" in the headline of the story published in the Local Section of Wednesday's Vindicator and had visions of elected officials finally throwing political self-interest to the wind and making a decision about the court system below the Common Pleas level. Such a decision had been urged several years ago by then state Auditor Jim Petro.
But the word "consolidation" had nothing to do with eliminating the four county courts and the municipal courts in Youngstown, Campbell and Struthers and replacing them with a metropolitan system. Rather, it referred to finding new space for the county courts currently located in Boardman, Austintown and Canfield. The court in Sebring would be untouched.
The meeting of the commissioners and the county judges was prompted by the fact that leases for the space the courts occupy have expired or are expiring. The lease agreement for the Austintown court, located in Austintown Plaza, expired in November and is being continued month-to-month. The lease for the Boardman court in the Boardman Plaza runs out Feb. 28; the Canfield court lease for space at 72 N. Board St. expires in March. The Sebring court at 605 E. Ohio Ave. has an agreement that runs through 2007.
As the news story noted, "At the forefront of the discussion was whether it is cost efficient to pay vendors for court space or should the county use that money to either consolidate the courts in one building or construct a facility to house the courts."
Archaic court system
May we suggest that even contemplating the construction of a new building for an archaic court system is foolhardy when the commissioners are trying to persuade the taxpayers of the county to approve a 0.5 percent sales tax in the May primary election.
It is no secret that The Vindicator has been at the forefront of the campaign to create a metropolitan court system that would have full-time judges -- one plan calls for seven such positions -- to replace the four part-time county court judges, the three full-time municipal judges in Youngstown and the one judge each in Campbell and Struthers.
But we aren't alone in contending that county government and the cities would realize cost savings through such a reorganization.
In January 2001, then state Auditor Petro issued a performance audit of county government that contained more than 200 recommendations for changing the way the people's business is conducted. Petro said that if all the recommendations were implemented, the county would save $2.7 million a year. But he also acknowledged that with some 1,200 of the 1,900 full-time employees being represented by 18 collective bargaining agreement, some $1.2 million of the savings would have to be negotiated into union contracts.
There has been limited progress in getting officeholders to adopt the recommendations, and that has become a major bone of contention for a vast number of taxpayers who have been demanding leaner, more efficient government.
In the audit, Petro called for the elimination of the four county court judgeships and the creation of a metropolitan court system below the Common Pleas level. Petro noted that such a change would result in the county's saving $256,800 a year in rent payments and would end duplication of services.
Law enforcement
But Petro, who is now state attorney general, wasn't alone in his view of the county courts. In August 2003, the Mahoning Valley's police chiefs publicly called for sweeping changes in the system, saying that "a cadre of lifelong, predatory street criminals" is slipping through the cracks.
We took the opportunity of the police chiefs' criticism to again call for the creation of a metropolitan court with full-time judges and urged law enforcement to join us in this worthy cause.
Yet, the discussion commissioners Ludt, McNally and Traficanti plan to have with county judges Joseph Houser, Diane S. Vettori, David D'Apolito and Scott Hunter has nothing to do with change. Rather, it's about finding a way to make the status quo slightly less expensive.
We do not fault the commissioners for exploring cost-cutting measures. After all, McNally and Traficanti, who took office in January, ran on a platform of trimming the fat in the budget and making government more efficient.
However, it makes absolutely no sense for the commissioners to even be thinking about a new court facility when county Auditor George Tablack is in the midst of dealing with the lowering of the county's bond rating.
A lower rate means that prospective bond buyers face a certain risk in holding such instruments. The county, therefore, will have to make such transactions attractive by increasing the interest paid to investors.
There is also the issue of credibility. As it is, the commissioners and other county officeholders face a daunting task of persuading voters that the 0.5 percent sales tax issue on the May ballot represents a make-or-break proposition. If the tax is rejected, the county would be unable to make ends meet. A state declaration of fiscal emergency would follow.
Ludt, McNally and Traficanti can curry favor with the taxpayers by announcing that court consolidation has been moved to the top of their priority list. The financially strapped cities would be hardpressed to argue for the status quo.

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