Kent County Fiscal Services Director Robert White told the Finance Committee last week that the judges and administrators at the county’s 17th Circuit Court have done a good job of containing costs the past few years, even while the caseload has risen.
“Generally, the circuit court has really held the line on expenditures,” said White.
In 2007, the court’s expenditures from its child-care fund totaled $22.4 million. Those expenses are expected to be $21.8 million in the 2010 fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1, or $600,000 less than in 2007.
The state and the county typically split those costs; financial support from the county’s general operating fund to the court was $12.2 million in 2007. But in 2010, the cash transfer is expected to be $1.2 million less, at $11 million.
“One of the ways we’ve reduced that transfer is we’ve reduced residential placement, primarily for delinquent kids. So that has been one of the keys,” said Jack Roedema, circuit court administrator.
Delinquent wards can be placed in various residential settings. Options include a foster home or a state institution, such as the boy’s training school, for the most difficult kids. Roedema said the court stopped sending young men to the training school because the state raised the per diem there to about $700, when similar, privately run institutions such as Wedgewood Acres charge $150 a day.
“We decided we were not going to place any kids with the state, and try to get those kids who were in state institutions out as soon as we could and into less expensive placements. And we did that with the judges’ cooperation. We’re still meeting the needs of these kids and we’re saving lots of money by doing that,” said Roedema.
Roedema said the court has also concentrated on keeping kids in their homes to avoid costly out-of-home placement.
“We have good probation officers who have worked real hard to keep those kids from re-offending, and that’s another way we’ve really saved some dollars,” he said.
However, savings can be difficult to squeeze out of the court’s budget when the caseload rises, as it did from 2004-2008 when it rose by 5.5 percent. Cutting costs can be even trickier when there are expenses that can’t be reduced. One irreducible expense is attorney fees. The court is required to pay for a lawyer when a defendant in a criminal case can’t afford one or a minor in a delinquency or child-protective filing needs one.
Filings in all three case types — criminal, child protective and delinquency — have risen at a faster rate than total filings at the court over the last five years. (See related chart.) Those additional cases have resulted in a larger court budget for attorney fees.
In criminal charges, Roedema said the court pays attorneys on a case basis, which makes it easier to determine what that cost will be each year. However, the court pays attorneys for each event in delinquency filings, so determining an annual cost is harder than in criminal cases because the number of hearings can vary for each case.
But in child protective filings, the court pays attorneys by the hour. Because some kids can be placed outside of the county, the court pays a lawyer $55 an hour plus travel.
“Let’s just say I budget for $1.5 million this year based on last year’s expenditure. I really don’t know if I’m going to stay within the budget because it depends on the types of cases, how much time these attorneys put into these cases, how difficult the cases are, if they’re within our county or outside our county and they have to travel,” said Roedema.
“When you pay by the hour, it’s a little bit of a guessing game.”
In February, the county commission gave the court $55,000 above the $1.5 million that was budgeted to cover attorney fees this year for cases involving children. The additional money was needed because the state started a new process called team defense meetings for child-protective cases in an effort to keep kids in their homes. But the children’s court-appointed lawyers began appearing at the meetings and the legal bills to the court rose.
“They billed for that, and that was never on my radar screen,” said Roedema.
Assistant County Administrator Wayman Britt called the state’s team defense meetings an unfunded mandate, while County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio has asked the state to split those attorney fees with the county.
“The other issue is, each child by rule has to be visited by their court-appointed attorney once, prior to their court hearing. We have over 100 kids placed outside the county, so now we have attorneys going to places like Cadillac and seeing a child prior to their hearing. The travel time adds to the cost too.”
Roedema has budgeted almost $3.3 million for criminal-defense attorneys in the next fiscal year, $650,000 for lawyers handling delinquency cases, and $1.95 million for attorneys involved in child-protective cases, which normally involve neglect or abuse or both. Those three figures total nearly $6 million.
“It can get real complicated,” he said. “For instance, we just had a hearing where we had five attorneys involved. That’s why you really can’t budget for this because you really don’t know what you’re up against sometimes.”
A bigger circuit court caseload
The criminal and child protective case filings made to the 17th Circuit Court have both risen by nearly 10 percent from 2004-2008. Delinquency cases grew by almost 7 percent during those years. The court’s budget has to include attorney fees in those three areas because many of the individuals involved can’t afford lawyers or are children without legal representation.
Note: Total Filings include case types not listed in chart.
Source: Kent County 17th Circuit Court, Sept. 2009