The question being asked of all Dearborn city departments this budget season is: Could you do your work with less staff?
The ’s answer has been an emphatic no, but some members of Dearborn City Council are looking to do just that. And not just any position–a judge.
The idea was proposed publicly at a budget session earlier this month, but has been floating around as a possibility for longer.
Councilman Robert Abraham–an outspoken critic of the court’s operations–confirmed that there has been “a series of conversations” between council, Mayor Jack O’Reilly and City Attorney Debra Walling concerning what it would take to bring the court’s judge roster from three to two.
“I’m very serious about that being one of the more viable options to control the funding required for the 19th District Court,” Abraham said.
Historically, the court did not have a third judge until the early 1990s, when the state legislature approved a Michigan Supreme Court-recommended measure to expand the number of judges. The growth was based on the consistently growing caseload for the court, and happened with the blessing of the Dearborn City Council, which enacted a resolution stating that they had the funding and were willing to support the costs associated with a third judge.
But have shown that councilmembers are not happy to see the caseload continue to rise while the revenue drops.
“If we cut your budget, and you bring in more revenue, that’s great. But the overall general fund dollars have got to go down,” said Councilman David Bazzy. “If you were a private business, you’d be in bad shape. And just because you’re not (doing well) doesn’t mean the taxpayers should have to fund this.”
Councilwoman Suzanne Sareini added that it’s “time to get creative” in the face of budget woes, including looking at contracting out, or cutting positions.
Court Administrator Sharon Langen contested that the court is operating with as small of a staff as possible.
"I did a survey of other courts ... and if you compare our numbers to courts with a similar caseload, we're actually operating very efficiently," she said. "I don't think we could afford to eliminate another position."
The 19th District Court's caseload is just over 80,100, and the staff includes 11 full-time and four part-time clerks, three full-time and two part-time probation officers, and one full-time probation clerk.
But several councilmembers have questioned the accountability of district court operations, which are overseen by the state, but funded by the city.
“Look at the state, look at the county,” commented Councilman Mark Shooshanian. “There’s no accountability for the court system.”
Councilman Abraham suggested that the 19th District Court has not shown the ability to operate smartly, or with taxpayers in mind.
He cited issues like the court’s work program vans, two of which are no longer operational after continual washing of the interior with running water led to the bottom of the vans rusting completely out.
Meanwhile, Abraham believes that drops in revenue show that judges are being too lenient to lawbreakers, resulting in more unpaid and waived fines and fees.
“Chief judges do not believe that the court has to answer to City Council,” Abraham said. “We’re supposed to be on the same team, serving the same community and spending the taxpayers money as effectively as possible.”
The process for removing a judge seat could be set in motion by a City Council resolution, but ultimately would have to be suggested by the Michigan Supreme Court and approved by the state legislature. The decision could take more than a year, and which seat would be eliminated is unclear.
The downsizing could also happen in conjunction with a move that would make enforcing and collecting on parking tickets a function of the city, thus removing a significant number of cases from the court's caseload.