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Local courts faced with possible cuts

BY Spencer Durham - sdurham@chronicle-tribune.com

With the results of a study examining the county’s finances still well over a month away, the County Council tabled the latest request to fill a job vacancy Wednesday evening.

Juvenile Magistrate Brian McLane had approached the council in February about filling a court reporter position in Superior Court II. Hesitant to approve any vacancy then, as they await the results of a study examining staffing and expenditures, the council chose to revisit the request during Wednesday’s meeting.

The council had suggested at the previous meeting that McLane and other judges discuss a sort of “floater” system where court reporters move between courts. McLane initially said this would not be possible.

The cost to the county for a court reporter is about $60,000, which includes salary, compensation and benefits, Circuit Court Judge Spitzer said. However, nearly two-thirds of these expenses are reimbursed back into the county’s general fund through a federal program.

Spitzer used the end of his State of the Judiciary presentation Wednesday to address some of the challenges facing the courts, including the potential absence of a court reporter.

Spitzer said one of the issues in having a floater system is that courts would sometimes be closed to the public. The judge explained that one court reporter is always in court with a judge and another answers phone calls and questions. If the latter is not available the court closes to the public. McLane said he had a person in his office take a day off recently and as a result had 75 missed phone calls.

Unpredictable schedules, different expertise and training for each court, as well as other logistical factors are not conducive to the system pitched by the council, according to Spitzer.

Council member Michael Conner asked Spitzer if sharing court reporters was “flat out impossible.”

“I’m saying it’s flat out impossible,” Spitzer said before rephrasing, “... anything is possible but it’s completely impractical.”

Council members, along with Spitzer and McLane, also discussed a centralized person who could field calls for all courts, possibly freeing up court reporters but this would prove to be difficult due to the expertise needed about each court. Spitzer said the clerk’s office already fields general calls but more specific or complex questions would need to be answered by a court reporter.

Council member Mike Scott spoke generally about how offices should be more willing to consider new alternatives instead of shooting them down.

“Let’s explore and examine if it will work,” he said. “Maybe we will learn new things that we can even improve on...”

Amid the discussion, Council President Jim McWhirt, circled back around to the ultimate bind the county is in.

“We cannot afford to continue funding what we’ve done with the current funding scenario we have in place,” he said.

Council member Mark Leming asked since all cases are filed electronically if it would be possible to take someone from the clerk’s office and have them fill the vacancy that way.

“The reason I’m going to sit here and tell you ‘no’ is because I haven’t seen the people we’re paying to tell us how many people per office, that’s my thinking,” he said, referencing the study. “...There has to be other ways of making this work, at least in the short time.”

Spitzer acknowledged that with e-filing there are things that now go through the clerk’s office that didn’t used to but wasn’t willing to speak if the office could be reduced.

“I just think if we’re going to include other things, I think the clerk’s office needs to be involved if they’re the one feeding you guys information,” Leming said to Spitzer.

Leming added that having the study available, which is being conducted by Muncie-based human resource firm Waggoner, Irwin, Scheele & Associates, would help in making a final decision. The vacancy will open up after May 4. The study reviews staffing levels for county offices. It is expected to give suggestions on possible savings and where any staffing cuts could possibly be made.

“I don’t know if the court can operate like it needs to operate with a month or two months waiting (for the study) to come to us,” McWhirt said.

McWhirt said he’d also like to have input from the County Clerk’s office before making a final decision.

Prior to making a motion, Scott said he needed more information before voting on whether or not to fill the vacancy. The council member said information from the clerk’s office would be helpful in making a decision. Scott ultimately motioned to table the request. The motion was approved unanimously and will be revisited April 18.

The study won’t be in by that date, most likely, as Conner relayed information from County Commissioner Mike Burton that the study will be made available sometime at the end of April or early May. Whether council members will put the request to a vote after they hear from the clerk’s office remains to be seen.

This year has featured plenty of long discussions about approving vacancies that are paid for out of the general fund. Wednesday was no different as the council deliberated over the matter for nearly 40 minutes. The council has weighed each vacancy carefully, approving some, denying others, but Wednesday was the first time this year the governing body voted to table a vacancy.