Six-year project would create one municipal system
By PETER H. MILLIKEN
Mahoning County’s municipal and county courts should be reduced from seven locations to four and transformed into a countywide municipal court over the next six years, according to a recently released consolidation study.
“The proposed consolidation promises to bring coherence to an uncoordinated lower court system, as well as enhanced efficiency, economies and effectiveness over the long term,” the study concluded.
The study was performed for the Mahoning County Bar Association by the National Center for State Courts, a Williamsburg, Va.-based independent, nonprofit court-improvement organization.
The study does not address whether the consolidated courts should feature full- or part-time judges or how many judges there should be, nor does it say how many court-employee jobs would be abolished or how much in annual operating costs would be saved by the consolidation.
Key recommendations of the study are:
Moving Youngstown Municipal Court from City Hall at South Phelps Street to renovated quarters in the City Hall Annex on Front Street.
Consolidating the county courts in Austintown, Canfield and Boardman, which now lease separate space, into a single, newly constructed, county-owned $8 million to $10 million building.
“I like their recommendations. I think that they’re practical. The facilities that they’ve talked about going to make a lot of sense and should result in some significant savings,” of money, said Atty. Scott Cochran, who was president of the bar association when the study was planned in 2009.
Cochran, however, said he was speaking for himself and not for the association.
“The Youngstown Municipal Court facility is inadequate in terms of proper interior furnishing and decor, building image and space allocation, functional space adjacency and circulation, accessibility for disabled individuals and court security, and it does not meet current court facility standards,” the study said in its final report.
Saying the study was conducted by court experts, Judge Robert Douglas of Youngstown Municipal Court said it “was done by a very credible body” and “should be taken very seriously.”
Judge Douglas said Youngstown Municipal Court has saved about $2 million from court-cost payments toward new quarters. He said the city could borrow an additional $6 million over 20 years to pay for annex renovations and pay it back from future court-cost revenues and from capital-improvement revenues derived from the city income tax.
Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio Righetti said consolidation should be considered, but she wondered where the financially ailing county would get $8 million to $10 million for a new court building.
Righetti said she would be uncomfortable borrowing that amount when the county is in debt for multimillion-dollar repair and renovations at Oakhill Renaissance Place, the county courthouse and administration building.
Judge Robert Milich, of Youngstown Municipal Court, said, however, “It’s not all dollars and cents. The prime goal is justice.”
The study recommended the lower-court consolidation occur in three phases.
In the yearlong first phase, it says a Mahoning County Court Consolidation Committee should be created to plan and guide the process.
A second phase, characterized by coordination, cooperation and information-sharing, between 2012 and 2015 would feature court website integration, centralized scheduling and data access, flexibility in case assignments and consolidation of specialty dockets, such as drug courts.
The third and final phase, between 2015 and 2017, would consist of drafting and passing state legislation enabling creation of a countywide municipal court, establishing a presiding judge, judicial council and a single unified budget, and building and combining the court locations.
Cochran said he thinks a nine-year, county court consolidation time frame would be more feasible than a six-year transition because the county commissioners signed 10-year leases about a year ago for the Austintown and Canfield courts.
The study was funded by a $50,000 grant from the State Justice Institute, $15,000 in staff time donated by NCSC and $5,000 donated by Mahoning County Bar Association members.
Based in Alexandria, Va., SJI was established in 1984 by federal law to award grants to improve the quality of justice in state courts.
The study recommendations “sound like feasible goals that should be considered, but I get the impression from reading the draft that this is more of a plan to have a plan, and to implement it in the future, there’s going to have to be more plans and more detail,” Judge Milich said.