By jeanne starmack
Consolidating the lower courts in Mahoning County is not a welcome idea in Campbell or Struthers, officials in those cities say.
The Mahoning County Bar Association is considering the idea and will make a recommendation to state Rep. Robert Hagan of Youngstown, D-58th, and state Sen. Joseph Schiavoni of Boardman, D-33rd, who may or may not present legislation consolidating the courts, said Brian Macala, Campbell’s law director.
The idea for the consolidation comes from the Ohio Supreme Court, which believes it is a good idea, he said.
The bar association is reviewing a report made by the National Center for State Courts that was released in June 2011, Macala explained. The study was funded in part by the Supreme Court, he said.
The report proposes the following scenario, Macala said: building a new building for Youngstown Municipal Court, combining Campbell and Struthers but using Campbell’s courtroom with some modifications, retaining the Mahoning County Court in Sebring and combining Austintown, Canfield and Boardman county courts.
Struthers and Campbell city councils passed resolutions in the fall against consolidation.
Macala said he, council members and Mayor Bill VanSuch are against the consolidation because it is wrong for the city on several levels.
First of all, he said, the court is a money-maker for the city, and the state has not considered the economic impact a consolidation would have.
Campbell, Struthers and Lowellville have their own city codes they charge crimes under, he explained, and so they get to keep 100 percent of the fines and court costs they collect.
He said if a defendant is found guilty under the city code and fined, 100 percent of the money stays in the city. If that defendant were charged and found guilty under the state code, the city retains only 50 percent of the fine.
If the county consolidates the courts, will the cities still be able to charge under their own codes? “That is the big question,” he said.
Macala gave an example of 2011 to 2012, when the city took in $225,000 from the court. He said that if the city had half that amount cut, it would collect only $112,000.
He said that besides fines and costs, the city is allowed to keep all the confiscated drug money from arrests under the city code. He said that money goes into the Law Enforcement Trust Fund, and the city uses it to buy equipment and cars for the police department. If the courts consolidate, the county will get that money, he said.
Macala said that he and Dominic Leone, his Struthers counterpart, still would have to prosecute cases if police charged under their city codes.
“And why are we doing this when we are already doing this?” he said, adding that taxpayers now pay for one part-time prosecutor but they would be paying for two, a city and a county prosecutor, at a full-time consolidated court.
He said that police officers would have to go out of their jurisdictions to transport prisoners, affecting costs and public safety.
He also said the city’s building could not accommodate a full-time consolidated court.
“No way,” he said. “A full-time clerk of courts would need more space, and we’d have to lease more space for records retention, and there would not be adequate parking.”
“They’d have to build a new building,” he continued, adding that would result in three new courthouses in the county at $8 million to build each building.
In Struthers, city Auditor Tina Morell said the municipal court is a source of revenue, though not a big one.
The city would not be reeling from the loss of the money, she said, though in tight times, every little bit helps.
She said that when the city council was writing its resolution against consolidation, she reviewed the court’s receipts and weighed those against expenditures for 2009 through 2011.
“It was a little over $100,000, she said, and she did not include health-care benefits, pensions and workers’ compensation in the expenses.
“The court does bring in revenue, but not a significant source,” she said.
Nonetheless, she continued, there are too many unanswered questions about a consolidation.
“You know what goes on here,” she said, referring to the part-time municipal court.
“We have three full-time clerks, a part-time clerk, a full-time bailiff, a part-time bailiff, a part-time judge and probation officer and a part-time magistrate, and they are constantly busy,” she said.”
“I don’t understand how they would save money, other than judges’ salaries,” she continued. “But how many cases — that’s what you have to consider.”
Struthers court also serves Lowellville, Poland, Poland Township, Springfield Township and New Middletown. Campbell also serves Coitsville. Morell said she doesn’t believe that combining all the cases in one court will allow enough time “for justice to be served."
She also said a question of who would be judge is in the balance if the courts combine before the judges’ terms are up. They are elected.
Mayor Terry Stocker said his biggest aim is protecting the city’s tax base.
He said job retention is a big concern. “Keep the number of employees we have here for income-tax purposes,” he said.