Legislature takes a second look at bill affecting county justice court

State legislators are working to amend a piece of legislation Jackson County officials say has been draining funds from the county's Justice Court, potentially endangering its operation.

The legislation in question is HB 2712, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2012. The law eliminated surcharges on traffic citations, dollars that originally stayed in the county and helped fund Justice Court operations. Additionally, the legislation increased funds paid to the state to $60 from $45 per violation while reducing the total fine. For example, a Class C traffic violation — the most common — used to be $190, with $45 paid to the state. The county retained the rest. Now the fine is $160, leaving the county with just $100.

"If not changed, justice courts in most counties will go away, since there is no way county governments can afford to deficit-finance justice courts," County Administrator Danny Jordan said in an email. "Municipal courts won't be far behind."

Under the proposed amendments, Rep. Peter Buckley (D-Ashland) said the state-assessed amount could drop back down to $44 or $45.

"Hopefully this is getting back to the structure we had before," Buckley said. "The key difference is the state was taking a larger share up front."

Between that and reduced fine amounts, Judge Joe Charter, who works at Jackson County Justice Court, calls it the squeeze.

"The calendar year 2012 was the worst in revenue, I think, since 2007," Charter said.

He added the changes resulted in a predicted $500,000 drop in revenue for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which the county would have to backfill with general fund dollars.

A court closure would mean the 15,000 or so annual traffic citations once handled by the Justice Court would move to Jackson County Circuit Court.

Richardson said the HB 2712's original intent was to streamline how counties divvied up proceeds generated from traffic citations. If hard data showed the bill's passage gave priority to state programs over county ones, necessary changes could be made.

"We said without at track record, there's no way to know if (the county's) concerns are valid. But if there are unintended consequences, we would do everything in our power to make those corrections," Richardson said.

Jackson County's data shows the law has had the detrimental effect, officials said. Whether or not a new bill would need to be drafted to fix the problem, or if it could be part of the final budget process in June, is not yet known. Either way, legislators say they hope to make the changes sometime in the next few months.

"It doesn't mean just undo everything," Richardson said. "We want to keep our promise not to be favoring the state at the expense of the counties. That will require adjustments to the way 2712 was designed and implemented. We still haven't finalized what they're going to look like."

— Ryan Pfeil

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