Birmingham mulls district court agreement
By Kevin Elliott
A local government agreement reached in December among Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and West Bloomfield to fund the 48th District Court could fall apart just a month after being approved as Birmingham city commissioners debated on Monday, January 10, pulling out of the agreement for 2023.
Birmingham city commissioners in December approved an inter-local agreement for the expenses and maintenance of the court, which is located in Bloomfield Township and serves Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, West Bloomfield, Sylvan Lake, Keego Harbor and Orchard Lake. In general, the court is funded through fines and fees generated from each of the municipalities it serves. However, the four largest communities – Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, West Bloomfield and Bloomfield Hills – have had an agreement since 1985 to act as designated “funding units” for the court.
As funding units, the municipalities share in the vast majority of funding the operations and maintenance of the court. As such, funding communities receive a larger return on fines paid to the court when its income outweighs expenses. Likewise, funding communities are responsible for covering shortfalls, if revenues fall short. Funding communities typically receive as much as $50,000 or pay more than $100,000, varying upon the year.
In late 2021, Bloomfield Hills opted to withdraw from the funding agreement. The move drew the ire of city leaders in Birmingham and Bloomfield Township. Subsequently, a new funding agreement between the remaining three municipalities was approved in December. Upon approving the new agreement, Birmingham city commissioners also voiced its desire to withdraw from the new agreement.
Birmingham City Attorney Mary Kucharek said that under the terms of the agreement, Birmingham would be required to give notice of intent to opt out of the agreement by the end of January, with a formal withdraw at the end of 2022. If it opts out of the agreement, Birmingham would receive one-third of fines and fees paid to the court from cases generated in the city, rather than it’s current two-thirds return.
Kucharek said the savings to the city from withdrawing from the agreement could be “significant,” depending on the year.
Commissioners on Monday, January 10, were presented with a motion to opt out of the agreement, but stopped short of taking action following an update from Bloomfield Township and comments by 48th District Court Chief Judge Marc Barron.
“We were told clearly by the Bloomfield Township Supervisor (Dani Walsh) that if we opt out and if we give notice to opt out, that they too will opt out and cease being a funding unit,” Kucharek said. “If that happens, despite the fact that the court is in their political subdivision, there’s not a funding unit for the court. The court still has to be funded, and it will.”
Additionally, Kucharek said the township supervisor said the township would cancel its lease with the court, which is located in the township’s government complex. Should that happen, Kucharek said it’s likely the court would file legal action against the township for breaching its lease agreement for the building.
Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus said the declarations don’t change his opinion on whether the city should opt out of the agreement. Rather, he said, it may be beneficial to Birmingham if all the jurisdictions served by the court were treated equally accountable.
Judge Barron, who spoke first as a representative of the court, said giving notice of intent to opt out of the agreement would essentially end the agreement, and spur immediate legal action to fund the court under state law.
“The court is not going to wait,” Barron said. “As soon as a funding unit gives notice of intent, we will take action. We must determine who will fund the court.”
Barron also spoke as a resident of Birmingham, urging commissioners to remain in the agreement, which provides a higher return, two-thirds, on fines and fees, as opposed to non-funding units, which only receive a one-third return. Further, Barron questioned why Birmingham would enter an agreement, just to withdraw from it weeks later.
Commissioner Clinton Baller questioned why the city would opt to take a smaller share of revenues.
“The idea is that we have to fund the court either way,” he said. “Why not take two-thirds instead of one-third? It seems that if the agreement blows up, someone is going to decide that we are going to have to fund it.”
Markus said the desire to opt out is based on the financial belief that the city would pay less overall to fund the court without the current agreement. He indicated the new agreement was formed after Bloomfield Hills withdrew from the former agreement, supposedly also based on financial forecasts. However, Markus said Bloomfield Hills didn’t follow the terms of the agreement when it withdrew, but was permitted to opt out, regardless. As such, he said the city would opt out of the new agreement, under its terms.
“We believe (they left) for financial reasons,” Markus said. “There was already inequity without allowing the (smaller communities) to get involved, and then they allowed Bloomfield Hills to leave. Now that it’s Birmingham pulling out, all hell breaks loose? Where was that with Bloomfield Hills?”
Commissioners voted unanimously to table the matter until its January 24 meeting.