Tuesday, November 29, 2011

TOP STORY >> District courts seen draining county budget

Leader staff writer

Lonoke County Judge Doug Erwin and several area mayors met at noon Tuesday for catfish and some hard discussion about how much the county should pay to help run the district courts in their cities.

“We want them to get their fair share, but we don’t want to pay more than we have to,” Erwin said.

But after more than an hour everyone left, and no decision was made. Some cities get more help than others, but the county doesn’t know how much is being paid for what.

Lonoke County Treasurer Karol DePriest tried unsuccessfully to get the mayors to stay until the matter was resolved. The county must pass a budget, she said, and she needs to know how much it will cost to for the district courts.

Erwin and DePriest said the requests they receive to reimburse the cities for running the district courts are only dollar amounts with no breakdown to explain where the money goes.

Mike Dolan, a member of the Lonoke County Quorum Court, commented that the county probably should have attempted before now to get control of the situation.

State law says the county must pay half the salary of the judge and clerk and could pay a portion of other expenses and worked out between the county and cities.

But the discussion revealed that there is no formula for determining how much each city is paid. There were only deals made in the past that apparently few if any in the meeting room at the courthouse annex were privy to. And whether any of those deals were in writing was unclear.

Cabot Mayor Bill Cypert said he didn’t know why the county paid half of all expenses associated with the Cabot court, but it does and he’s not prepared to change that for 2012.

Jeff Sikes, attorney for the county, said in absence of an agreement for 2012, the county should, by default, hold to state law and pay half the judge’s salary and half the chief clerk’s salary.

“My budget is done,” Cypert responded. “If I have to go back to the city council and ask them for another $200,000, it’s not going to be pretty.”

Questions about paying for the county’s five district courts – Cabot, Ward, Lonoke, Carlisle and England – arose during budget meetings after Ward submitted information that appeared to indicate that its court would cost the county $188,000 in 2012 compared to $60,000 in 2011. Henry Lang, a member of the quorum court, said those numbers made bells go off for the budget committee.

But as it turns out, the $188,000 was Ward’s entire court budget, not what it expects the county to pay in 2012.

Ward Mayor Art Brooke became slightly indignant over the implication that he was asking for more than the city was entitled to.

Brooke said Ward District Court has sent the county $140,000 in fees collected in Ward so far this year and that he didn’t think it was too much to ask for some of that back.

“I simply want the reimbursement we’re entitled to,” Brooke said.

Carlisle Judge Ray Glover left the meeting early but not before saying he thinks the money should be distributed more fairly.

Contacted after the meeting, the county judge said what bothers him is that he doesn’t know what the county is paying for because there are so many deals in place.

He will take the matter before the quorum court, he said. But he added that he is not inclined to pay more than he has to. And all the county has to pay is half the salary of one judge and one clerk for each district court.