Office holders plead case for county money

Published 9:23 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The first of several budget hearings was Tuesday in the Lawrence County Commission office at the courthouse.

Three county officeholders, Common Pleas Presiding Judge Charles Cooper, Treasurer Stephen Dale Burcham and Coroner’s Assistant Bill Nenni, met with the commission and discussed their offices and their needs for the coming year and how the county’s tight finances will, hopefully, stretch far enough to meet those needs.

“The information we gather over the next two weeks is crucial. When it all adds up, we take the mandates and needed services … It’s important for people to understand the reality of each office. It’s a much more involved problem and we’ll evaluate everything. I can’t say what we’ll do,” Commissioner Jason Stephens said. “All possibilities and solutions are up for discussion here in an open forum.”

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Although no firm figures are in — Lawrence County’s budget commission has yet to meet and certify next year’s anticipated revenues — Stephens said he anticipates the county will have $1.5 million less to work with next year than it did in 2008.

Stephens acknowledged not one single change will solve all the county’s budget woes.

“It’s a big dilemma,” Commissioner Les Boggs agreed. “We see the crime increasing, we’re looking at local government funds (from the state) being cut, the economy is down.”

The budget hearings will continue next week.

Common Pleas Court

Without question, one large chunk of the county budget goes to administer justice to those who run afoul of the law. And these days that number is growing.

Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Charles Cooper said the number of indictments issued by the Lawrence County Grand Jury has increased approximately 25 percent this year over 2008.

“Indictments went up from the 300 range to the 400 range,” Cooper said. “And that is all criminal. Civil cases are not up. They’re staying pretty static at about a thousand per year. We have a few more foreclosures.”

Another interesting fact: Cooper said the number of women being charged has also grown over the years.

Cooper told the commission next year will likely be a repeat of the year ending, fiscally speaking, with a couple of exceptions.

Money spent earlier this year for badly-needed computer transcribing and sound systems for the courtrooms will not be repeated next year.

Also, one security officer who has been working full-time has requested to go to part-time status. A small savings will be realized in the court’s salaries line item.

This employee was not on the county insurance plan so the change in status will not reflect a savings there.

Another full-time officer who left will be replaced with a part-timer as well.

Again next year, all of the court’s operational costs (supplies, etc.,) will be paid for out of non-general fund monies.

Much of the salaries for the court staff is also paid for out of other non-general fund monies.

Cooper said this helps alleviate some of the commission’s worries about keeping the criminal justice system afloat.

One area that gets regular scrutiny at budget time is courthouse security.

Cooper said the security staff is vital to the security of the building, given the number of people who transact business in one form or another.

Approximately 100,000 pass through each of the courthouse’s two entrances each year and officers at each entrance routinely confiscate prohibited items — items that could be used to hurt somebody.

“We get bullets, we get knives, we get pistols,” Cooper said. “And occasionally, because some of our security people are also law enforcement and serve warrants, they see people who have outstanding warrants and must arrest them. It’s an impressive number of arrests made annually (at courthouse entrances).”

Cooper explained that in addition to manning checkpoints at courthouse entrances, constables also provide security inside courtrooms during court proceedings — there are as many as four trials a week — and provide security on Wednesday’s when as many as 50 inmates are housed on the fourth floor awaiting their pretrial conferences and other criminal proceedings.

In his three years as judge, there have been two fights involving inmates in the holding cells, incidents during which constables are not only handy but necessary.

“Wednesday is our busiest day. Then, we start jury trials, usually for two days, on Mondays and Thursdays. So between Judge Bowling and myself we can have four trials a week, although many are settled in advance. We have more than 100 trials a year and then Wednesday is for everything else,” Cooper said.

The constables also provide security for other courthouse offices when angry visitors get out of hand.

The judge told the commissioners one aspect of security that they may not have thought about is after-hours security for meetings that take place after 4 p.m., when the courthouse is usually closed.

A constable must come back after these meetings have ended to make sure the building is properly secured.

Cooper said money from the Adult Probation Agency is often used to supplement salaries for courthouse security, thus alleviating some of the burden on the general fund.

Stephens asked if going to a four-day week, to save money, would be feasible for the court. Cooper told him state law requires the court to function for a minimum of 200 days per year. Subtracting holidays and weekends, this leaves little wiggle room to meet that state mandate.

“If we went to nine of 10 days (and closed) every other Friday, would that help?” Stephens asked.

“Possibly. A better way is to stagger the staff, be open have a skeleton crew but still meet the state’s obligations,” Cooper said.

Stephens acknowledged not one single change will solve all the county’s budget woes.

The coroner’s office

People usually don’t see the coroner’s office at work and while it may be one of the quieter operations of county government, that doesn’t mean it’s not necessary.

Coroner’s Assistant Bill Nenni said the coroner’s office handles 60-80 deaths each year.

While some of them are fairly straightforward (the person died of natural causes) others, such as the murder-suicide earlier this year in Perry Township, require more work.

Anywhere from 7 to 10 require autopsies, Nenni said.

Right now all bodies requiring autopsies are taken to Columbus. Franklin County is the closest county with a medical examiner’s office.

There are none in southeastern Ohio, although most of the state’s largest cities have one.

There are also no medical examiner’s offices in eastern Kentucky or western West Virginia that could be used: All autopsies in those states are done at state medical examiner’s offices in Frankfort and Charleston respectively.

The cost for an autopsy conducted in Franklin County is $1,100, plus the cost of transportation, Nenni said.

“It’s a fair statement that 20 percent of your budget goes for autopsies,” Boggs suggested to Nenni.

Coroner Dr. Kurt Hofmann recently sent a letter to the commission, suggesting the new medical facility being built on State Route 141 include a morgue. To build and equip a morgue would cost approximately $250,000.

In a letter to the commission Hofmann said he hoped grants and other non-county funding sources could be found to help pay for the morgue.

“Right now we really don’t even have a place to do an examination,” Nenni said. He said local funeral homes are kind to provide space for such examinations and he is grateful that the area’s funeral directors are willing to help, but they are not equipped to be a morgue.

Nenni said right now the coroner’s staff — Dr. Hofmann, Nenni and another assistant — use personal offices and equipment to conduct the paperwork end of coroner’s office business.

The treasurer’s office

The old adage that it sometimes takes money to make money may be true when discussing the treasurer’s office.

Burcham said he would like to hire two part-timers to help bring on-line a tax lien sale program that could put more money into county coffers.

In a tax lien sale, the tax debt is sold to a third party who then collects the delinquent amount plus a fee from the delinquent property owner. The county gets its money up front and the person who buys the tax debt makes money by charging the person whose debt they erased.

But hiring even two part-timers costs money and at first, that money must come out of the general fund. Later, these salaries can be paid for out of the delinquent tax sale fund — a portion of the money collected at delinquent tax sales is distributed to the treasurer’s office and the prosecutor’s office and can be used for salaries.

“And you believe revenues from the tax lien sale would more than pay for the salary increase?” Boggs asked.

Burcham said yes. More than 1,000 parcels of property are slated for the tax lien sale list.

The board of elections, juvenile court, emergency management agency and county municipal court are slated for budget hearings Dec. 8.

The clerk of courts, 4-H extension office, recorder’s office and veteran’s service board are scheduled for budget hearings Dec. 9. The sheriff’s and prosecutor’s offices have yet to be scheduled.

Commissioners hope to have a budget in place before the beginning on the new year.