County's best option

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board February 01, 2012 05:54 pm

The Oregon Legislature didn't do Baker County any favors last year when it passed a law that, starting Jan. 1, diverts a significant amount of money from fines and fees paid to Baker Justice Court to the state.

That law, HB 2712, could siphon $180,000 from the Court's coffers over the next 18 months.

Lawmakers might reconsider their decision during the session that started this week.

But with a big shortfall in the state budget, and major education and healthcare proposals from Gov. John Kitzhaber to consider during the month-long session, we're not confident that HB 2712 will get ironed out.

Which leaves Justice Court, and Baker County, in the lurch.

Fortunately, the county's court system has had experience recently in making do with less.

A serious illness has forced Justice of the Peace Lise Yervasi to turn over some of the Justice Court's docket either to interim judges or, in the case of some misdemeanors, upstairs in the Courthouse to the Circuit Court, which is a state function.

Yervasi, whose term continues until Dec. 31, 2012, isn't running for re-election.

Four people have filed as candidates for the job. And with the deadline to file little more than a month away, on March 6, prospective judges need to know what the position will entail.

To that end, Fred Warner Jr., chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, has proposed to shift the job from full-time to half-time.

That would save the county an estimated $50,000 per year — the justice of the peace earns a salary of about $62,000, with health insurance, retirement and other benefits adding about $36,000 more.

Warner also suggests the county work with Circuit Court Judge Greg Baxter, and District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff, to transfer all misdemeanor cases from Justice Court to Circuit Court starting July 1.

That would save the county an additional $70,000 because Justice Court would not longer have to pay attorney costs for indigent defendants.

That cost would instead be borne by the Circuit Court. That's fitting, in a sense, as the state, which is taking money from the Justice Court, would have to suffer some of the consequences.

Warner's plan is not perfect.

But it has the advantage of being flexible.

If, for instance, the wholesale move of misdemeanors to Circuit Court results in an unacceptable backlog of cases there, the county could shift some of those cases back to Justice Court and pay the cost from the county's general fund.

For now, though, Warner is wise to proceed as though the Legislature won't rectify its costly mistake from 2011.