Home News Local News New state law could bankrupt Justice Court
New state law could bankrupt Justice Court
By TERRI HARBER
Baker County Commissioners are looking at how new state rules could negatively affect the local Justice Court.
HB 2712 changed how penalties paid for a variety of infractions and offenses are collected and distributed among state and local agencies.
The law could leave the Baker County Justice Court significantly underbudgeted and likely result in sharply reducing court operations or even shutting it down, commissioners said during their Wednesday meeting.
The legislation, which was approved during the 2011 session, took effect on Jan. 1.
Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr. estimates that about $170,000 that has been going to the Baker County Justice Court each year will instead go to the state as the changes slowly take effect during the next couple of years.
That’s more than half the Justice Court’s annual budget of about $319,000.
“Justice Courts are really going to get nailed,” Warner said. “It’s a money grab by the state. They’ve been trying to get rid of the Justice Courts for years.”
Estimates vary across the state because each Justice Court hears a unique blend of local cases.
Warner estimates that the loss of money will start becoming dramatic during the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, 2012. This is because not all fines and other payments from 2011 have been collected — an effort which could take several months as cases reach the court for resolution, he said.
Some of the Justice Court’s functions could be absorbed by the Baker County Circuit Court, though Warner expects that more employees would need to be hired there to handle the added load of traffic cases.
Justice Court also hears such matters as small claims and misdemeanor cases.
Commissioners recognized how much the Justice Court benefits the community, but they said it would be difficult to find money to keep the operation going.
“I don’t know that the Justice Court needs to make money, but we have to be careful that it doesn’t bleed money,” Warner said.
And Commissioner Tim Kerns warned that “If we get rid of it we won’t get it back.”
Kerns also wondered if it would be possible to reduce number of cases as well as the number of hours that judges work.
Compensation for the incoming Justice of the Peace needs to be resolved relatively quickly, the commissioners said.
Judge Lise Yervasi’s term ends later this year. She’s not running for re-election. If one of the candidates seeking the position gets more than 50 percent of the votes during the May primary, that person would take office mid-year. Otherwise, Yervasi’s successor will be elected in November.
Commissioner Carl Stiff said that it might be good “to sit down with the candidates — Michael Downing, Robert Whitnah and Damien Yervasi (who’s Lise Yervasi’s husband) and let them know what’s going on.”
One or more might want to drop out of the race if the responsibilities are greatly reduced, Stiff said.
Pay to this new Justice of the Peace will have to be determined soon because the county can’t lower a judge’s pay once the official has been sworn-in. It could end up being a part-time position if the Justice Court operations are sharply curtailed, Warner said.
“Is there anything we can do?” Kerns asked.
Right now, “I don’t have an answer for that,” Warner replied.
Any remedying state legislation would have to be approved during the upcoming state legislative session that begins next month. It’s not clear whether lawmakers will take up the matter in February.
Commissioners plan to bring the matter back for a public hearing as early as their next regular meeting on Jan. 18. They said they won’t take drastic measures before hearing from the public about the issue and would like to allow local officials to talk about the court and its functions.
The Justice Court currently has a small surplus of operating funds that are added to Baker County’s general fund: about $33,000 in the 2010-11 fiscal year budget.
Cities also receive some revenue for fines and tickets issued by their officers.
Damien Yervasi, a local attorney and one of Justice Court candidates, told commissioners that the financial loss could result in fewer cases being prosecuted because court time would be sharply reduced.
Defendants would believe they are receiving a “free pass” to offend because their cases might not be reach court in time. More emboldened offenders would then add to law enforcement’s burden, he said.
Civil cases would take longer to resolve because it would be harder to schedule court times, Yervasi also said.
There are Justice Courts serving 21 counties across Oregon, according to the Oregon Justices of the Peace Association.
These courts are a “benefit to the public,” Warner said. “You represent yourself. You don’t need an attorney.”
In other business Wednesday, the commissioners:
• Heard about a plan to use Title 3 funds to employ five at-risk youth. They will be conducting fire prevention activities through the Oregon Youth Conservation Corps. Pay will be $8.80 an hour — the current minimum wage in the state. The county will pay for a portion of the work program: $22,000.
• Appointed members to the Northeast Oregon Economic Development District Board: Baker City Mayor Dennis Dorrah, Jason Yencopal, Tim Kerns, Carl Stiff and Elizabeth Burton. Their terms run through December 2014.
• Intend to choose five of the seven members of the local wolf depredation compensation committee during their Jan. 18 meeting: one county commissioner, two people representing the livestock industry, and two people supportive of wolf conservation or coexistence. The committee members will then choose two more business people to complete the group.
• Approved an intergovernmental agreement with the Oregon Department of Transportation to allow completion of a replacement bridge over Clear Creek on Gulick Road in near Halfway.
• Announced that a draft of the county’s comprehensive zoning ordinance is available for review. Visit www.bakercounty.org or request a printed version from the county.