County Delays Action on Lump Sum for Courts

A proposal to postpone the final vote on a notice to eliminate a lump-sum budgeting approach for Washtenaw County’s court system was made at the July 10, 2013 meeting of the county board of commissioners. The vote was 6-2, with dissent from Dan Smith (R-District 2) and Conan Smith (D-District 9). Rolland Sizemore Jr. (D-District 5) was absent. The item was postponed until the board’s Oct. 16, 2013 meeting.

The board had voted last month 5-4 to give initial approval to the notice – at its June 5, 2013 meeting. The proposal had been brought forward by commissioner Alicia Ping (R-District 3). The move caught some commissioners by surprise, though for several weeks during budget deliberations Ping had expressed concerns over the county’s approach to funding the court system. Voting in favor of initial approval on June 5 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.

Ping had noted that her goal wasn’t necessarily to cut funding for the courts, but rather to be more transparent about where the money goes. Giving a notice to terminate the agreement would have given the board the option to end it.

No court officials attended the June 5 meeting, because the proposal had not been on the published agenda. However, Donald Shelton, chief judge of the trial court, subsequently spoke with several commissioners, including Ping, about their intent. The courts have historically been in favor of a lump-sum approach, rather than the line-item budget provided by most other units of county government.

The courts operate under a memorandum of understanding with the board of commissioners. The board unanimously approved that MOU on Jan. 19, 2011, replacing one that had been in place since 1990. [.pdf of memorandum of understanding] The agreement states that the county will provide “lump sum” funding to the courts, allocated to: (1) the trial court – an entity that includes the 22nd Circuit Court, court clerk services, juvenile court, Friend of the Court, and probate court; (2) 14A District Court; and (3) a portion of the county’s child care fund. The county does not have line-item budgeting authority, but the courts agreed to submit a bi-annual line-item budget, and to provide quarterly financial projections.

From the general fund, the lump-sum payment to the courts in 2013 totals $19,155,029 – with $13,353,110 for the trial court and $5,801,919 for district court. In addition, state funding for certain trial court operations – the Friend of the Court and child care fund – totals $4,977,047. [.pdf of 2013 budget pages with trial court-related amounts highlighted]

On July 10, Ping reported that Shelton had provided a detailed document regarding the court’s budget, and that he had indicated a willingness to meet with commissioners and the administration about this issue. She said she wanted to give commissioners time to digest the additional information, and to hear the county administrator’s budget proposal for the general fund, which is expected in October.

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]