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Court consolidation conversation continues

29th District Court.

By Carolyn Marnon – There will be no fund balance in the City of Wayne budget on June 30, 2021. Instead, there is projected to be a $3.8 million deficit.
“The City has a severe structural deficit,” said Brian Camiller of Plante Moran when he addressed the city council during a special study session on July 13 regarding court consolidation. He said the court is both a cost-center and a source of revenue with revenue being driven by activity. Unfortunately, activity has been in decline while costs continue to go up.
City Council came together to determine whether another city taking on the caseload of the 29th District Court in Wayne would be a benefit or an additional burden on the City. The study session’s purpose was to discuss options available to increase revenues, to decrease expenses, and to move the court outside of Wayne.
There have been preliminary discussions with other district courts where consolidation could be a net positive where Wayne would get some of the court revenue and the rest would offset costs the other city would have taking on Wayne’s caseload.
Breeda O’Leary, who was recently appointed 29th District Court Judge to replace retired Judge Laura Mack, admitted that from an accountant’s perspective, such as Mr. Camiller’s, the court is a revenue-generator. She then went on to say, “The role of the court is to administer justice. The role of the court is not to generate revenue for the City. To the extent that anyone thinks that is the role of the court, I think it’s very important to educate them that our job is not to generate money. Now, we happen to generate revenue by virtue of administering justice, but I want to be very careful to control the conversation so as not to give the impression that our job at the court is to generate revenue for the City.”
Mayor John Rhaesa conceded by saying, “I guess, maybe a better way to say this-we’re having a problem that we can’t afford the court currently based on where our numbers are.”
In February, the city council passed a resolution to find out whether other local cities were interested in a court consolidation. To the best of Mayor Rhaesa’s knowledge, Wayne has only looked at consolidation with Westland for the last 10 years. Westland hasn’t been interested.
Plymouth-Canton was open to the conversation, but Mayor Rhaesa and Mayor Pro-Tem Tom Porter didn’t feel it was a good fit, distance-wise. Romulus showed interest and seemed to be the most viable, but that interest stalled. There was talk about Inkster, but concerns about possible legislation directing that districts be contiguous has left that city out of the discussion.
A possible merger with Romulus would have Romulus taking over the costs of the Wayne court. However, Wayne would still have costs associated with the current building, such as utilities and upkeep. Mr. Camiller said that Romulus was only interested in a merger if the judge position was vacant at the time; they didn’t want an additional judge. Since Judge O’Leary was appointed to the 29th District Court, that would take Romulus off the table.
“I understand the financial situation the city is in,” said Judge O’Leary. “In light of that, to that end, we’re willing to work in reducing costs to the extent we haven’t done already where it’s feasible to do so and exploring consolidations and mergers.” She acknowledged that the court’s caseload over the last three years has flattened out; it has not declined. She was ready to present to council members a list of things the court has already done to cut costs.
Judge O’Leary also addressed the rising costs in the current 2020-2021 court budget saying they were anomalies. Court Administrator Linda Gable and former Judge Laura Mack had to account for worst-case scenarios in preparing the budget. These included additional health care costs for a new judge, a court recorder for a new judge (Judge Mack was her own recorder,) and training a new court administrator before Linda Gable retires in December.
“The city cannot afford its current operations” interjected Mr. Camiller, “so the court is one component that theoretically, if another community is willing to take it on, could save the City of Wayne money.”
City Manager Lisa Nocerini expressed her concern that a merger with Westland’s 18th District Court would not work. Wayne had to pull out of the fire department merger with Westland due to financial reasons. “There is a bitter taste, and I think we need to move on from that.”
Police Chief Ryan Strong said that logistically, Inkster is “just down the street” in connection with the transport of prisoners. Westland and Romulus would take about 15 minutes to do transports.
O’Leary informed council that Wayne’s probationers are already being sent to Westland to report, do drug tests, attend the work program, etc. as a cost-saving measure.
Another idea mentioned was saving on a court administrator when Mrs. Gable retired in December.
Councilman Jeremiah Webster voiced his concern that pursuing court consolidation was using too much time and that the City should pursue cost-saving measures instead. Councilman Kevin Dowd added that council should address immediate things that can affect the budget and as a long-term project, continue to look at consolidation possibilities with Romulus, Inkster and Westland.
Councilman Anthony Miller questioned whether traffic cams could be put in place to generate revenue. According to Chief Strong, traffic cams are not legally permissible in the State of Michigan.
What is in the works now? Judge O’Leary will be providing bullet points to Mayor Rhaesa summarizing the potential benefits in a merger with both the Westland and Romulus courts. She will also be speaking with the judges of those courts to see whether they would be interested in allowing the Court Administrators to discuss financial scenarios associated with a merger. Mayor Rhaesa will be speaking with the Romulus and Westland mayors about the idea of a merger.
Finally, Wayne Court Administrator Gable and Judge O’Leary will review their current budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year to identify any further cost-savings/reductions; this report will be provided to the council before their August 3 council meeting.

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