County Board Debates Trial Court Funding

In a move that appeared to surprise many commissioners and staff, Washtenaw County commissioner Alicia Ping (R-District 3) formally proposed giving notice to eliminate a lump-sum budgeting approach for the Washtenaw County Trial Court. She made the proposal at the board’s June 5, 2013 meeting.

Alicia Ping, Washtenaw County board of commissioners, The Ann Arbor Chronicle

Washtenaw County commissioner Alicia Ping (R-District 3) at the board’s June 5, 2013 meeting.

After a lengthy and often heated debate, the board gave initial approval to give notice, but postponed final action until July 10. The approval was on a 5-4 vote.

Unlike other units of county government, which prepare line-item budgets authorized by the county board, the trial court operates under a memorandum of understanding with the board of commissioners. The board approved that MOU on Jan. 19, 2011, replacing one that had been in place since 1990. [.pdf of memorandum of understanding] As part of the agreement, the county pays for operations of the trial court in four “lump sums,” allocated separately to: (1) the 22nd Circuit Court [including circuit court administration, juvenile-general fund, friend of the court and community corrections]; (2) Probate Court [estates & mental health]; (3) 14-A District Court; and (4) the child care fund. The county does not have line-item budgeting authority, but the trial court agreed to submit a bi-annual line-item budget, and provide quarterly financial projections.

The proposal by Ping, the board’s vice chair, comes in the context of the administration’s goal of identifying $6.99 million in structural reductions for the 2014 budget. For several weeks, Ping has raised concerns that the court is treated differently than other county units in the budgeting process. At the board’s May 15, 2013 meeting, she asked to see the history of funding for the courts, saying she was curious about whether the courts had cut in the same way that other county units had cut. “I’d like to know that we’re all in the game together,” she said at the time. [.pdf of historical funding for public safety & justice operations]

On June 5, Ping noted that her goal isn’t necessarily to cut funding for the courts, but rather to be more transparent about where the money goes. The board could ultimately decide to leave the lump sum approach in place. Giving a notice to terminate the agreement simply gives the board the option to end it.

Conan Smith (D-District 9) supported the action, saying that the legislative branch has budgeting responsibility, and the board has abrogated that responsibility by agreeing to lump sum funding. With a line-item approach, the county board could indicate priorities for the court by allocating more funds to specific areas. Dan Smith (R-District 2) also argued in favor of the action, noting that the courts are funded with essentially no oversight.

No one from the trial court attended the June 5 meeting – the proposal had not been on the published agenda.

The process for ending the lump sum agreement is written into the MOU:

13. Modification and Duration – This Agreement may be modified by mutual consent of the parties. This Agreement shall continue indefinitely and may be terminated only upon one year’s written notification by a party to all other parties. The County agrees to include the Court in the modification process relative to any County policies covered by this Agreement.

However, during the board’s June 5 ways & means committee meeting – when Ping brought forward the proposal – the discussion was based on a faulty assumption that the MOU called for a six-month notification process. That assumption influenced the debate, with some commissioners arguing for urgency in order to end the agreement before voting on the next budget. The administration is preparing a new four-year budget from 2014-2017, which will require board approval before Dec. 31, 2013.

Ronnie Peterson (D-District 6) argued most strongly against Ping’s proposal, fearing it would damage the board’s relationship with the courts. [Though he was not mentioned by name, the trial court is led by chief judge Donald Shelton.] Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) warned that the board might be starting a fire that they couldn’t put out. He noted that if the court decides to sue, the county would be required to pay the attorney fees.

Yousef Rabhi (D-District 8), the board’s chair, indicated that he didn’t know Ping would be making this proposal. He agreed with her reasons for making it, but was concerned about the process. He felt there hadn’t been sufficient thought given to the ramifications of this action.

After further debate during the ways & means committee meeting – including a failed attempt to postpone the item – the board voted 5-4 to give initial approval. Voting in favor were Ping, Conan Smith, Dan Smith, Andy LaBarre and Kent Martinez-Kratz. Voting against the proposal were Yousef Rabhi, Ronnie Peterson, Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Felicia Brabec.

Commissioners initially were set to take a final vote at the board meeting that same night – held immediately after the ways & means committee meeting. However, after a break between the two meetings, corporation counsel Curtis Hedger reported that the MOU actually required a full year of notice. This turned the opinion of some commissioners, who wanted to take more time to study the issue. Andy LaBarre (D-District 7), who chairs the board’s working session, offered to schedule the topic for a working session as soon as possible.

Rabhi lobbied for postponement, saying he didn’t want to create a confrontational atmosphere with the courts – although he acknowledged that the evening’s discussion might have already damaged that relationship. He proposed postponing final action until July 10.

The motion to postpone passed on a 6-3 vote, with dissent from Alicia Ping, Dan Smith and Kent Martinez-Kratz. The proposal will be on the board’s July 10 agenda. That meeting will also include action related to the county’s major bonding initiative.

This brief was filed from the boardroom of the county administration building at 220 N. Main St. in Ann Arbor. A more detailed report will follow: [link]