Birmingham upholds district court agreement
By Kevin Elliott
The Birmingham City Commission at their meeting on Monday, January 24, agreed to uphold an intergovernmental agreement with Bloomfield Township and West Bloomfield to fund the 48th District Court, located in Bloomfield Township.
The court, which serves Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, West Bloomfield, Sylvan Lake, Keego Harbor and Orchard Lake, is funded in large part by fines and fees from court cases generated by each municipality. Under an agreement reached in December, Birmingham, Bloomfield Township and West Bloomfield are responsible for pre-funding the court, and receive a portion of revenues back. However, the funding units also absorb costs when revenues fall short of funding responsibilities.
Birmingham City Commissioners in December said they planned on opting out of the funding agreement in favor of receiving a smaller return on revenues and foregoing the agreement, as some other communities served by the court have done. Under the agreement, the city is required to give notice of opting out of the agreement by January 31, with the formal exit occurring on December 31.
Birmingham City Commissioners on Monday, January 11, had been presented with a motion to opt out of the agreement, but stopped short of taking action following an update from Bloomfield Township.
“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,” city attorney Mary 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 Walsh 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.
48th District Court Chief Judge Marc Barron also indicated that the court would take legal action to ensure the funding of the court, if the agreement were to dissolve.
Kucharek said litigation could be extremely costly, and the court’s portion of those costs would still be paid by Birmingham and the other communities served by the court. She said the intent of opting out of the agreement was based on Bloomfield Hills opting out of the agreement last year.
Bloomfield Hills, until 2022, was a “funding unit” of 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 each year.
Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus said the city was opposed to Bloomfield Hills opting out of the agreement last year without giving adequate notice. However, he said Bloomfield Township and West Bloomfield agreed, at the advice of their attorney, who represents both townships and Bloomfield Hills.
“We didn’t think this was a good idea, but the concept was clear. Bloomfield Hills was going to get out and not pay expenses, and that was clear,” Markus said. “At that meeting, I asked if it were okay if we got out, and they looked at each other and said, ‘I guess so.’”
Kucharek said it was believed that Birmingham would be treated the same way as Bloomfield Hills when it decided to opt out of the agreement. However, she said that hasn’t been the case.
Further complicating the matter was disagreement between the court and city as to how much the city actually pays and is projected to pay for court operations each year. Birmingham Finance Director Mark Gerber said he believes the court’s analysis of funding and returns isn’t accurate.
Birmingham City Commissioner Elaine McLain asked whether a mediator and outside auditor could be involved to go over the cost to the funding units and help reach an equitable agreement.
“There’s no reason this can’t work, but we need independent parties and fresh eyes,” she said.
Commissioner Clinton Baller agreed, motioning that the commission should direct Markus and legal counsel to investigate the matter further with the intent of reaching a new agreement.
“There’s some craziness going on here – cuckoo,” Baller said. “Not on our part, but these threats from the township, the numbers being so far off and we’re still not getting anybody saying, ‘yeah, you’re right.’ I think we need to tell you what you’re suggesting you do and sit down with them to get into some good faith negotiations, and come back to us.”
“It sounds like you’re making a motion to direct the city manager to direct the city and staff to work in conjunction with the 48th District Court to demonstrate the funds and balances and to participate with the other six jurisdictions to come to a resolution on how to fund the court in what we believe would be an equitable way,” Kucharek said.
“So moved,” Baller said.
Commissioners unanimously approved the motion, thus remaining in the current agreement.