Judges And County Court Costs Up

    GRAND RAPIDS — Although the number of justices serving in the Circuit and Family Division courts will rise by 20 percent on Jan. 1, the budget for the both will only rise by 12 percent next year.

    The two new justices voters will elect on Nov. 5 will lift the number of judges in those courts from 10 to 12, while the combined budget for both courts will go from $31.89 million to $35.75 million.

    The Circuit Court budget will rise from $14.05 million this year to $14.82 million in 2003. The Family Division budget will rise from $17.84 million in 2002 to $20.93 million next year.

    It’s possible that one of the new judges may be assigned to the Family Division.

    The addition of the judges means Kent County will add 11 employees to the system. The new judges will get two clerks each. The Circuit Court clerk also will get two employees, a senior administrative specialist and a typist. The prosecutor’s office will get two assistant prosecuting attorneys and a clerk, and the court security force will get two new officers.

    The 11 new court employees will cost the county $512,466 next year.

    The judges, however, will be paid by the state.

    “There are a number of reasons why there is an increase in the budget. I wouldn’t directly attribute it to the two new judges,” said Kent County Administrator and Controller Daryl Delabbio.

    “The two new judges will amount to about a half-million dollars in additional costs. But that figure includes two new security guards, three new staff for the prosecuting attorney’s office, and two new staff for the clerk’s office. It’s not just the four staff for the judges,” he added.

    Most of the $3 million-plus increase found in the Family Division budget comes from a decision by the federal government to stop funding a child-placement program. Instead of the Fed giving $2 million to the state for placing at-risk children in a safer environment, the county will become responsible for that half of the $4 million program next year.

    “We’re incurring $2 million in costs that we didn’t incur in the past for placements. We were getting state funds for that, but they’re not eligible to receive that money. That is where the big increase in the Family Division is,” said Delabbio.

    “We used to charge that money to the federal government.”

    Although the new justices will each get two employees, that number is one less than the sitting judges have. Rather than having a court recorder on their staffs, the new justices will have their sessions recorded on videotape.

    “Because of the level of activity that the court has demonstrated, it justified the addition of the judges,” said Delabbio. “The state court administrators actually felt that Kent County should get four new judges.”

    If the county had gotten four new justices instead of two, chances are two posts would have been deleted from other circuit courts in the state in order to keep the costs down. Also, the state told Kent County years ago that it needed two more judges for the Circuit Court. But the county couldn’t act on adding the justices to the bench then because the former Hall of Justice was too crowded to accommodate them

    “This is something that has really been on the burner for seven or eight years,” said Delabbio.

    The $35.75 million budget for the Circuit and Family courts is part of the $106.37 million that has been budgeted for the justice system next year. The county’s total operating budget for 2003 tops $388 million. Another $13.9 million is devoted to capital outlays.

    County commissioners will hold a public hearing on the budget on Sept. 12 and they are expected to adopt the final version two weeks later. The county’s fiscal year begins on Jan. 1.        

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