County to Keep Trial Court Budget Agreement

At their Oct. 16, 2013 meeting, Washtenaw County commissioners rejected a proposal that would have given notice to eliminate a lump-sum budgeting approach for Washtenaw County’s court system. The vote was 3-6, with support from only Dan Smith (R-District 2), Conan Smith (D-District 9) and Kent Martinez-Kratz (D-District 1).

The issue had arisen this summer, when commissioner Alicia Ping (R-District 3) had brought forward a resolution to give notice to the courts. She did that at the board’s June 5, 2013 meeting in a move that caught some commissioners by surprise, although for several weeks during earlier 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 initially were Yousef Rabhi, Ronnie Peterson, Rolland Sizemore Jr. and Felicia Brabec.

Then at the county board’s July 10, 2013 meeting, when the item was on the agenda for final approval, the board had voted to postpone a final vote until Oct. 16. The rationale was that it should be coordinated with approval of the 2014 budget.

Ping had stated 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.

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.

On July 10, Ping reported that chief judge Donald 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. County administrator Verna McDaniel and her finance staff presented a four-year budget proposal for 2014-2017 at the board’s Oct. 2, 2013 meeting.

During the Oct. 16 meeting, Dan Smith (R-District 2) moved to postpone action on this item until Dec. 4, but his motion was defeated on a 1-8 vote – as he was the only one voting in support. Shelton – who had stayed at the meeting until after midnight, when this item was considered – spoke briefly to commissioners, saying he welcomed an opportunity to continue the collegial relationship between the board and the courts, and he didn’t think a postponement would help with that relationship.

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