Crawford County Board agrees to move some court employees to separate budget
Dan Sanderson | Staff Writer
Nearly six years removed from a prolonged battle over employee costs for the 46th Trial Court that went all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, three area counties are entering into a agreement to share costs for a limited number of employees serving the court.
After expressing some measure of reluctance, the Crawford County Board of Commissioners, at its meeting on Thursday, Jan. 26, agreed to move personnel for the 46th Circuit Trial Court into a shared-court funding budget. The 46th Trial Court covers Crawford, Kalkaska, and Otsego counties.
After the trial court was formed to cover the three counties, court officials sought enhanced benefits, including post-retiree health care and pensions, so they could retain the best caliber of personnel and compete with the private sector for all court employees. The Otsego County Board of Commissioners sided with officials overseeing the 46th Trial Court, but Crawford and Kalkaska counties did not. The two counties argued that the unfunded financial liability would force the elimination of other county employees and services, and that it was unfair to not to give similar benefits to other employees.
Lawsuits ensued and after making their way through appeals and racking up $2 million in legal fees, Michigan Supreme Court justices ruled in 2006 that counties did not have to fund the benefits. A fundamental issue in the case was that the judicial branch serving the counties could not mandate payment of benefits that should have been dictated by the county boards as the policy makers for their respective municipalities. In addition, governmental accounting procedures require municipalities to set aside funds for future pension and health care costs, an issue that the State of Michigan, and municipalities across that state and nation, are now wrestling with.
Now, officials from all three counties are in the preliminary steps of moving five employees into shared-court funding budget.
Part of the issue is that the new 46th Trial Court Judge Colin G. Hunter, of Grayling, and his legal secretary will now be on the payroll from Crawford County. The two positions were previously on Kalkaska County’s payroll. Chief 46th Circuit Trial Court Judge George M. Mertz and his secretary were already on Crawford County’s payroll. And, a law clerk who serves all three counties is on Otsego County’s payroll.
Crawford County Administrator Paul Compo said that moving the employees to the shared-court cost budget would give Mertz and court administrators from the three counties easier oversight in following expenses and making financial decisions for court operations.
All three counties would have to agree on moving additional employees into the shared-court funding budget.
“We’re talking about five employees, and that will never change,” Compo said.
Shelly Pinkelman, the vice chairwoman for the Crawford County Board of Commissioners, said she was puzzled about returning to sharing costs between the counties since court officials and county officials could not agree on employee benefits in the past.
“I don’t know how we got to this point, because it took so long to get everything separated, and now we’re going back again,” she said. “This sounds like Lansing government right now.”
Compo, Otsego County Administrator John Burt, Kalkaska County Clerk Deborah Hill, Mertz, and the court administrators would oversee the shared-court budget funding operations and policies. Crawford County will handle the fiduciary duties for the budget.
There will be no county commissioners sitting on a committee to set policy for the shared-court cost funding positions.
“We’re trying to avoid that level of oversight,” Compo said.
The counties will share the cost for the employees this year, and go with a formula based on the number of court cases each county handles in future years.
All parties will review costs associated with the shard-court budget annually, as part of developing the budget for the next fiscal year.
Compo noted that the salary for the two judges are set by the State of Michigan. The other employees will be working under similar provisions of a Crawford County employee policy, which says they can only receive up to a two percent pay increase if other union and non-union employees get the same pay hike.
Compo said there has been trust gained in working between the counties and the courts since the lawsuit was decided and that some court officials have moved on.
“Everybody is on board with this, we just haven’t pulled the trigger,” he said.
Dave Stephenson, chairman of the Crawford County Board of Commissioner, said he did not want to return to a legal battle to safeguard taxpayer funds from disagreements over court operations.
“Hopefully, that scenario never happens again,” Stephenson said.
Compo said that the judges and employees could always be moved back to their respective county budgets if issues arise.
“If for some reason it falls apart in the future, everybody goes back to where they were, then they have to deal with the employee problems,” Compo said.