Capper requests more funds

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 29, 2007

Lawrence County Municipal Court Judge Donald Capper came to the Lawrence County Commission meeting Thursday to ask for more money to operate his court through the end of the year.

Not getting the response he wanted, he delivered a sober warning: next year, he will court-order the funds for his budget.

Capper told the trustees he has the money to make the upcoming payroll. After that he will need approximately $75,000 for salaries, utilities and other necessities through the end of the year.

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“I understand you’ve got pressures, too. I had one employee retire and has not been replaced. I have one employee on sick leave and has not been replaced,” Capper said. “I want to be responsible and respond to the needs of the county. But the court system has got to stay in operation. It’s to the point now where we’re out of money and we’ve got to come up with some solution.”

Capper said at the beginning of the year, his office, like all other county offices, was given money for salaries but nothing else, such as supplies. But unlike other offices, his court is not in the courthouse. His court in Chesapeake has its own utilities that he must pay for out of his budget.

“You budgeted me nothing for juror fees and I’ve got a trial starting tomorrow,” Capper said.

Capper said his office brings in more than a million dollars a year. Of that amount, roughly $484,000 is returned to the county. Commissioners said they do not believe this money is going into the general fund and have asked the Lawrence County Auditor’s Office to determine where specifically the money is going.

Capper said 6 out of 10 Lawrence County residents live in his jurisdiction and his court handles 500 cases more each year than Ironton Municipal Court.

“I’m not trying to throw stones at other courts, but their budget equals ours and they don’t pay utilities,” Capper said.

Commissioners said while they understood Capper’s plight, they and all other offices in the county are suffering the same financial crunch.

“I think we’ve appropriated about what we’ve got,” Lawrence County Commissioner Doug Malone said. “The board of elections is running way behind, too.”

“If we had filled all mandates and court orders at the beginning of the year, we would not be able to fund any other offices,” fellow Commissioner Jason Stephens said.

Commissioners asked if he could take money out of his special projects, or capital improvement account, to make ends meet until the end of the year. Capper has $199,000 in this fund.

Capper said he is already paying one employee’s salary out of his computer account and is reluctant to take money out of this fund since it has in the past paid for a new roof on the court building and is meant for such expenditures. He is also not sure if it is legal to transfer money from this account to the general fund. Malone said he had talked to the state auditor and such a transfer would be allowable.

As for layoffs, Capper said he did not want to be the only officeholder handing his employees pink slips.

While commissioners wanted to see Capper use money in the special projects account to make ends meet, Capper wanted a firm commitment the commission would consider the move a loan and pay back the money.

Capper said he understands how big a burden jail overcrowding has been to the county’s budget and is willing to work with other judges to see what can be done to reduce the inmate population, such a greater use of home confinement.

“Let’s get a concentrated effort to get everyone together,” Malone said.

“I’m not opposed to coming in on a Saturday if that’s what it takes to get this done,” Heaberlin said.

Capper said the Ohio Supreme Court could send in a mediator to help resolve the conflict. Stephens said that may not be such a bad idea.

“I don’t want to go to court and I hope it can be resolved short of that,” Capper said.

The commission will get the prosecutor’s opinion as to the legality of the transfer and a detailed report from the auditor’s office about where the $482,000 from the municipal court is going.

According to state law, judges and prosecutors are the only county officeholders who can court-order their budget — that is, they can hand the commission a document that states what amount of money they want and if they don’t receive it, they can resort to force. Ohio laws allow these officeholders to even have commissioners jailed.

“I don’t feel like we’ve accomplished much,” Capper said. “Next year I will put in a court order for my budget. I’ve never done that before, but I am not going to let this situation happen again. Expect a court order for 08.”