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County approves Justice Court cuts
By TERRI HARBER
Baker County Commissioners during their meeting Wednesday unanimously approved budget changes needed to reduce by half the salary for the justice of the peace and cut the operating hours of the Justice Court.
Reducing the minimum compensation for the incoming justice of the peace and transferring indigent defense services to the Baker County Circuit Court will save the county an estimated $120,000 annually.
The transfer of an estimated 300-500 misdemeanor cases from the Justice Court to the Circuit Court also will allow the Justice Court to operate part time.
The changes were prompted by HB 2712, which the Oregon Legislature approved last year.
The bill, which took effect Jan. 1, transfers a significant amount of fines and fees collected from justice courts to the state.
County Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr. estimates the Justice Court budget could drop by as much as $200,000 a year.
Having the justice of the peace work only about 20 hours a week instead of full time, as in the past, and reducing their benefits to a commensurate level, saves the county about $50,000 per year. And removing the misdemeanor case load from the Justice Court would allow the transfer of cost to defend indigent offenders to the Circuit Court — $70,000 used to handle at least 300 cases each year, Warner said.
Reducing, but not closing, the Justice Court would allow officials to later increase the court's hours, and judge's salary and benefits, if the demand and funds allow. Closing the court essentially would be a forever proposition because it couldn't reopen in Baker City, the county seat, Warner said.
Some misdemeanors already have been shifted to the Circuit Court during the past several months to help Justice of the Peace Lise Yervasi, who's been ill. Her six-year term ends Dec. 31, and she is not running for re-election.
Warner had pushed to make the changes before a new justice of the peace takes office. One reason is that state law prohibits counties from reducing a justice of the peace's salary during his or her term; salaries can be increased, though.
Circuit Court Judge Greg Baxter said he and his staff would do their best to deal with the increased case load — even with their own budget decreasing.
"It could get really nasty here soon," Baxter said.
One possible change is reducing the hours the Circuit Court's service window is open. That would give employees more time to do data entry without adversely affecting other vital functions, Baxter said.
The number of cases heard in Circuit Court already is higher than it was at the same point last year, due in part to the transfer of some misdemeanor cases from Justice Court. If this heavier pace continues it could bring 300 more cases into the Circuit Court and add an extra hour of court time to the schedule each week, Baxter said.
Baker City attorney Damien Yervasi, Lise Yervasi's husband and one of the six candidates to replace her as justice of the peace, pointed out that a more crowded Circuit Court docket would most affect such matters as divorce or child custody cases because events could transpire that negatively affect the outcomes, particularly with child custody cases.
And he said Baxter's estimation about added court time is conservative because more complicated cases require additional court time.
District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff has told the Commissioners that his staff would do their best to adjust to the changes. It likely would affect their ability to prosecute cases, to get the effect they want. This also might mean resolving cases more quickly, such as by plea bargaining, which "we’d rather not do," Shirtcliff said previously.
Retired Justice of the Peace Larry Cole has urged commissioners to allow voters to decide what to do about the court by placing a question on the May 15 ballot.
But Warner explained that the county needed to make a decision about the Justice Court before the March 6 election filing deadlines so candidates would know whether the job they seek is going to be full time or part time.
HB 4025, a legislative remedy meant to replace some of the money taken away from Oregon's Justice Courts by HB 2712, was approved by the House Judiciary Committee and referred to the Ways and Means Committee on Feb. 10. Legislation that didn't receive a first committee vote by the end of the day Tuesday most likely won't make it during this abbreviated first-time even-year session, however.
Besides Damien Yervasi, the other candidates for justice of the peace are Robert Whitnah, Steve Bogart, Mike Downing, Gail Duman and Roger Coles.
Coles, a Baker City Council member, filed his candidacy papers on Thursday.
In other business Wednesday, the commissioners:
• Approved the appointment of Mike Ragsdale and Martin Arritola to the Baker County Wolf Depredation Compensation Advisory Committee. These are the last member named as representatives and represent business interests. Commissioner Tim Kerns is the county’s representative. The two members with ties to livestock interests are Curtis Jacobs and Mike Colton. The two with conservation or coexistence interests are Steve Edwards and Nolan Perkins.
This local group will allow people dealing with wolves to come to them with problems and apply for compensation. They also plan to seek $5,000 from the state to finance activities that would keep wolves from attacking livestock. The money is part of the statewide wolf depredation fund that will compensate ranchers for wolf-related losses as well as finance wolf deterrent methods that won't harm the predators or their prey.
• Approved the election measure for the four-year local options tax for weed control. The assessment that pays for roadside weed removal and noxious weed abatement will be 0.0745 for $1,000 assessed property value. It's the same amount levied in 2008 and county wide will total $90,000 a year through the fiscal year 2015-16.