City leaders expressed concern Tuesday night that Dearborn's could not justify its expenditures.
At a budget meeting Tuesday night, court administrators brought documents to explain the department's expenses and revenue history, plus caseload and staffing comparisons to similar courthouses.
But most questions from City Council members and Mayor Jack O'Reilly did not yield immediate answers—and several councilmembers expressed disappointment that Chief Judge Richard Wygonik did not attend the meeting.
"I personally am not happy he's not here," Councilman Bob Abraham told court representatives. "We've had problems in the past and we're trying to work past them. But it's important that the person in charge should be here."
Council President Tom Tafelski agreed.
"We have a lot of questions," he said, "and it would help if the chief judge or one of the judges could come and answer some of them."
Among their biggest concerns were statistics showing that while caseloads and expenses continue to go up, revenues are down nearly $400,000 since 2008.
The court's proposed fiscal year 2013 budget requests $4.369 million–roughly $900,000 more than 2008.
"I just cannot swallow it," Abraham said. "I have a hard time supporting (the budget) given all the issues we're going through."
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.
According to Langen's survey, the closest comparable district by caseload–the 43rd District Court (Ferndale/Madison Heights/Hazel Park)–employs six full-time clerks and two full-time probation officers. However, several courthouses (Birmingham and St. Clair) employ more staff than Dearborn, but with caseloads 20,000-40,000 less.
City leaders also heavily questioned the court's system for enforcing the collection of delinquent payments.
As of April 11, 62 percent of money owed from collection notices dating back to 2006 has been paid. The percentage paid goes down every year forward, with just 11 percent of delinquent fines for 2011 marked as paid.
"This is disappointing in terms of percent and duration of how long it takes to collect," Mayor O'Reilly commented. "If we exercise the bench warrant and bring them in, we’d like to get data on how soon that happens, is the total amount paid and what’s the percent paid."
Councilwoman Suzanne Sareini suggested that the court look into the possibility of working with a collection agency.
Council requested to have the court budget discussion moved to a meeting later this month at a time when one or more of the district's judges would be able to attend and answer the city's questions.