Birmingham looks at funding for local court
By Grace Lovins
The Birmingham City Commission hosted a workshop on Monday, November 14, continuing to analyze possible solutions to the current funding agreement for the 48th District Court, located in Bloomfield Township.
The 48th District Court is classified as a third-class district court covering specific local jurisdictions within a county. Currently, the court extends to Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield, Keego Harbor, Sylvan Lake, and Orchard Lake. A third-class district court is also meant to be funded by the communities it serves. When the court was first established by legislation passed in the 1960’s, the seven communities created a funding agreement in which Birmingham and the three Bloomfield communities were the four primary funding units.
In late 2021, the Bloomfield Hills city commission announced the city no longer wished to be part of the funding agreement and pulled out without providing the proper timeframe of 12 months for notice. Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and West Bloomfield let Bloomfield Hills exit the agreement after two months despite this. Realizing that the court’s primary funding now falls only on three of the seven communities, Birmingham commissioners contemplated withdrawing from the agreement as well, but voted in January of this year to remain.
Bloomfield Township and West Bloomfield both informed the city that if Birmingham were to opt out of the agreement, they would follow suit. Bloomfield Township also suggested that they would potentially terminate the lease agreement they have with the court if the funding agreement falls through. Bloomfield Hills has also indicated that they will not opt back into the agreement because of Bloomfield Township’s lease with the court.
Birmingham Assistant City Manager Jana Ecker updated the commission on the expenses the city is currently paying to the court, noting that court costs, totaling roughly $4.5 million, falls on the three main funding units. She also explained that the current funding agreement is causing the city to lose money out of its budget whereas the smaller units, called political subdivisions, are having money added back into their budgets.
With how the court funding is set up, the major funding units receive the majority of the revenue from their respective jurisdictional caseload and receive two-thirds of the revenue from the four political subdivisions. The political subdivisions receive one-third of the revenue from their respective jurisdictional caseload, however, because the funding units are covering most of the cost, the political subdivisions are receiving more money back than they put in while the funding units are seeing a cost deficit.
Ecker noted that the city has been working to sort out a different agreement between the seven communities where each would essentially pay the percentage of their court usage. While that option seems relatively simple, some communities aren’t completely on board with Birmingham’s proposal, and one community, Sylvan Lake, has declined to even meet with city staff.
According to Ecker, Keego Harbor and Orchard Lake “may be amenable” to paying their share of the court’s expenses based on the percent of the community’s caseload and dependent on certain revenue factors, however, Sylvan Lake is not willing to enter an agreement for equitable share. They claim that they didn’t have a say in the creation of the court or the terms of the funding agreement, which Ecker notes that none of the communities had a say in which district they were put in.
Ecker also provided the commission with the hypothetical details if the city were to decide to opt out of the funding agreement for the next year. Birmingham would still be responsible for the 2023 court funding and will continue to be responsible for at least a portion of the future funding, but it is unclear how much that portion would be. If Bloomfield Township and West Bloomfield decide to opt out along with Birmingham and the agreement completely fails, the court has stated it will go to litigation right away.
Ecker clarified at the end of the workshop that the session was intended to be a status report, and that city staff are doing what they can to craft an equitable solution between the communities, and they don’t currently require additional commission direction.