15th District Court Drives City Budget Adjustment

The annual year-end budget adjustment has been approved by the Ann Arbor city council. The changes to the FY 2013 budget totaled $567,000 for the general fund, much of which stemmed from additional expenses incurred by the 15th District Court. [.pdf of proposed amendments]

The 15th District Court’s portion of that adjustment stemmed from $112,000 in salary increases based on an interest in retaining employees, $203,000 due to a “catch up” payment to the law firm that provides indigent representation, and a back-bill for security from Washtenaw County for two fiscal years for $110,000.

Related to the FY 2013 budget adjustment to account for 15th District Court indigent representation were two other agenda items regarding the law firm that provides that kind of representation. [The 15th District Court is required to provide representation to those who cannot afford an attorney, if a conviction would result in jail time.]

The council approved a $240,000 flat-fee contract for representation of indigent defendants – with Nassif and Reiser, P.L.L.C. (f/k/a Funkhouser and Nassif, P.L.L.C.), d/b/a Model Cities Legal Services (“MCLS”). The contract covers FY 2014.

The reason the contract was structured as a flat fee is that MCLS had customarily delayed billing for services until a defendant’s case was completely closed or additional court action was deemed unlikely. Even after a guilty verdict, defendants remain under court supervision and can be subject to other court orders. So for the previous year, the council was asked at its June 3 meeting to cover $203,000 of fees that accrued due to the delayed billing practice used by MCLS.

In addition to approving the city’s FY 2013 budget adjustment that included back-billing for security services, the council approved next year’s $160,000 contract with the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office for weapons screening at the Justice Center, which houses the 15th District Court. The estimated annual cost is based on $25.25 per hour per court security officer. The estimated maximum annual cost of $160,000 is $27,000 less than last year. The money comes from the 15th District Court’s budget.

Two other items related to the 15th District Court appeared initially on the council’s consent agenda, a group of items considered routine and voted on as a group. The council was asked to approved $30,000 for a Sobriety Court grant program contract with the Washtenaw Community Health Organization (WCHO) to provide mental health treatment to 15th District Court defendants. And the council was asked to approve $65,000 for a Sobriety Court grant program contract with Dawn Farm for in-patient and out-patient drug abuse counseling to 15th District Court defendants.

The Dawn Farm item was pulled out for separate consideration, because the item included a request for a waiver of the city’s living wage ordinance for Dawn Farm to provide its counseling services. According to the staff memo accompanying the resolution, Dawn Farm employs 70 people, including 15 employees who are paid less than $12.52 per hour with health care coverage, and 18 people who are compensated at rates less than $13.96 per hour without health care coverage. Those are the rates specified in the city’s living wage ordinance.

Last fall the council engaged in a vigorous discussion of a living wage ordinance waiver for Community Action Network (CAN), which ultimately resulted in the granting of a waiver at the council’s Nov. 8, 2012 meeting.

On June 17, the council ultimately voted to approve the Dawn Farm grant over dissent from Sabra Briere (Ward 1) – based on the living wage issue.

This brief was filed from the city council’s chambers on the second floor of city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]