The county has looked for years at the court caseload, which has declined. But most of the remaining cases in the Western Division originate from Trotwood, and a lack of bus service to New Lebanon and an expiring building lease prompted a search for alternatives, commissioners said.
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The Western Division serves Brookville, Clay Twp. Farmersville, Jackson Twp., Jefferson Twp., New Lebanon, Perry Twp., Phillipsburg, Trotwood and Verona. The Eastern Division serves primarily Huber Heights and Riverside.
Jerome said moving all activities to Huber Heights would double the distance to more than 17 miles from Brookville.
“With fuel and just the basic delivering of court paperwork every day, it would impact me $4,500 a year,” he said. “That has nothing to do with court transports, subpoenas for officers, responding to court. I think those numbers are going to be well above that. I think the impact to our department I would estimate probably to be $20,000.”
Montgomery County Commissioner Dan Foley said no permanent decisions have been made, but it appears the county will extend the New Lebanon lease into 2020 to buy time. But it’s unlikely the court will stay where it is beyond that.
“My instinct is New Lebanon is probably not the best location for the court, that we need to look at trying to find a way to deliver services that serves the needs of the chiefs of police, the police forces and the communities,” he said.
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Michael Colbert, assistant county administrator for Development Services, said no plan would get approved without a municipal court presence on the western half of the county.
“We are going to work with our stakeholders to come out with a process we feel is in the best interest of the whole county,” he said. “It was never an option where we were going to be leaving the west.”
It’s likely the western facility would move back to Trotwood, where it was situated about 20 years ago, Colbert said. It’s clear Trotwood has the highest traffic and civil case level on that side of the county, but whether the Western Division needs a satellite court or larger facility is yet to be determined through further study, Colbert said.
“There will be a county presence in the west, it’s just a matter of what that footprint looks like,” he said.
The county has already completed two surveys: a caseload and staffing study and one assessing the physical conditions of the court buildings.
In 2016, a total of 3,235 civil case plaintiffs and defendants and 5,014 criminal defendants used the Western Division. The same count respectively for the Eastern Division was 3,281 and 7,053, according to the results of a National Center for State Courts study.
The study’s analysis showed the facilities would have sufficient future space with some modifications, but “with respect to caseload, the projected future level of filings could easily be accommodated within a single facility, assuming it is adequately sized and designed.”
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Case filings throughout the system dropped from 22,139 in 2002 to 14,923 in 2016, down almost a third. But those filed in the Western Division dropped 51.2 percent during that time while falling only 4.8 percent in the Eastern Division, where a majority of the cases were filed in 2016. And caseloads are expected to continue to decrease, as much as 59 percent by 2040, according the study.
While part of the decrease in caseloads can be attributed to population loss, another factor is that cops today have less time to enforce traffic laws.
“If you study traffic and civil (cases), yeah, they might be lower,” said Jerome. “But if you look at the opioid epidemic and the serious cases … we don’t have time to sit and write tickets.”
“Writing tickets and these civil cases is not really a great comparison of what we do. We just want to let them know that we are concerned. We would like to be an active part of that and we would like to present our case for each department what it’s going to cost – a ballpark figure – so at least they know.”
The combined budget, not including court staff, for the county municipal courts in 2018 was $1,878,663, with $974,872 going to operate the court in New Lebanon and $903,791 for the Huber Heights location, according to the Montgomery County Clerk of Courts office.
A long-term lease for the New Lebanon court of $135,936 was paid off at the end of last year. A $135,936 lease on the Huber Heights building will be paid off in October. An additional $85,042 will be spent this year on the New Lebanon building and $83,200 in Huber Heights for other costs including janitorial services, building security and basic maintenance, according to the court clerk.
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Trotwood has worked to head off any wholesale move of the municipal court to Huber Heights, according to Fred Burkhardt, executive director Trotwood Community Improvement Corporation and City Housing Director.
In a preliminary proposal created by Trotwood, the city makes a case for it being the most economic and service-friendly site for relocated court functions.
“Given the most likely sites (Trotwood and Huber Heights), a Trotwood location offers the most cost effective, administratively efficient location,” the report reads.
The proposal by Trotwood’s Community Improvement Corporation offers up the current public library building for reuse or a 17-plus acre site at the corner of Olive Road and East Main Street.
Trotwood Police Chief Erik Wilson said he and some others are indifferent whether commissioners relocate the Western Division, but are adamant if it is moved, it’s not far.
“We don’t care if the court doesn’t come into Trotwood. We’re fine if it stays in New Lebanon,” he said. “We are just here because we want to make sure they come talk to us before they make a snap decision on something that could impact the whole western side of the county.”