Cooperation key to funding district court
Our local communities engage in multiple examples of mutual aid and revenue sharing, which helps all of them – it allows large and small municipalities to share services and depend upon one another in good times and bad, spreading out the responsibility for funding police services, such as dispatch services and task forces, fire and other emergency aid, senior services, animal welfare, library services, cable TV production, and numerous other ministrations. Some of these shared services citizens see on a regular basis, and some are more “behind the scenes” activities.
Until just a few months ago, seven local communities – Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills, West Bloomfield, Sylvan Lake, Keego Harbor and Orchard Lake Village – mutually supported the local 48th District Court. Under a 1985 agreement, Birmingham, Bloomfield Township, Bloomfield Hills and West Bloomfield – the four communities considered the “bigs” – meaning they provided annual funding for court operations and maintenance in response to budget requests from the court based upon the percentage of their community's use of the court. The “bigs” get a two-thirds return of their receipts, with the three “small” communities of Sylvan Lake, Keego Harbor and Orchard Lake Village submitting their tickets and court cases, and receiving one-third of their generated revenue.
The court is located in Bloomfield Township, on Telegraph just south of Long Lake Road. Local district courts handle all misdemeanors, traffic tickets, pretrial criminal actions and arraignments.
While Bloomfield Hills, by population, is not a large municipality, it has always been considered a “big” community according to this arrangement due to Woodward Avenue running straight through the community, and thus contributing a great deal of public safety revenue.
For over 35 years, the arrangement worked relatively well. Some years the funding units had to contribute more than they received; other years, they received more revenue than they funded.
And then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
The court was shut down for lengthy periods of time, staffers were laid off or worked remotely, court cases were postponed due to shutdowns, delaying fines and court costs, less police tickets were written – meaning there was a severe decline in revenues, and a sharp decrease in receipts returned to the funding communities. Yet the court still had to be funded.
Bloomfield Hills Mayor Sarah McClure, in what has been termed by several other leaders as a panic similar to pulling money from your 401K when the stock market drops, unfortunately led her city commission to pull out as a funding unit because she said her community was forced to pay too much in 2020 and 2021 – with less than three months notice, leaving Bloomfield Township, Birmingham and West Bloomfield holding the funding unit bag. As Michigan Supreme Court Administrator Tom Boyd explained, the goal of funding district courts is not to make money, but by statute, only to recoup costs. As Boyd put it: “If you are just recouping costs, that means you cannot have excessive revenue.”
There has always been a clause in the agreement that a funding unit could exit with a one-year notice. Bloomfield Hills' unfortunate opt-out has led to anger and ill will among the four funding unit communities – but it may ultimately lead the municipal leaders to create a new – and more advantageous – agreement to fund the court.
Boyd explained that local units of government can't just walk away from funding the district court, because by legislative mandate it's not a decision they can make. The court must be funded. It's a municipal responsibility to its citizens.
Therefore, they've got to figure out a way to go forward and to put their unpleasant feelings behind them.
Birmingham City Manager Tom Markus and City Attorney Mary Kucharek have come up with a formula that could right-size the way all of the communities fund the court and receive revenue.
In the proposal, all seven communities would be treated equally, and all seven, including Keego Harbor, Sylvan Lake and Orchard Lake, would be required to pre-fund the court based upon proportionate case load analysis – that way all seven communities would be considered funding units, and it would eliminate the two-thirds/one-thirds methodology when it comes to the sharing of court revenues.
It would be based entirely on percentage of caseload, with every community giving funding to the court quarterly in proportion to its case load and its usage of the court. At the end of the year, communities would determine the offset based on revenue received.
It's imperative that all seven municipal leaders sit together and review this proposal, and come to a resolution. No one community can bear the costs of running a district court on its own. In true revenue-sharing fashion, it's time to share the costs and reap the benefits.