Plan to join Moroni, Mt. Pleasant courts moves ahead favorably
Sept. 14, 2017
MORONI—Mt. Pleasant and Moroni cities are looking favorably at a proposal to join their city justice courts into one court that would have jurisdiction over both.
At a meeting of the Moroni City Council on Thursday, Sept. 7, the general consensus was to move forward with the plan, which had been initiated by Mt. Pleasant City while David Blackham was still mayor prior to June.
With a vague agreement to try and get it done by as early as October, there was little discussion centering on “it’s not if, but when.” Rather, the big question was, “Who’s going to pay how much?” or, in other words, how to make the plan a fiscally rational one for both cities.
“If we’re going to lose more money, if it will cost us more money to do a joint court rather than individual ones, there’s no sense in doing it,” said Gary Keddington, Moroni City’s contracted accountant.
That was early on in the meeting, though, and ensuing discussion made it apparent that most people, including Moroni’s Judge Mark McIff (who is also interim judge in Mt. Pleasant after the retirement of Ivo Peterson) and Mt. Pleasant representative Councilman Justin Atkinson, felt that it made sense to combine the positions.
In fact, some present at the meeting felt the move could be the first step toward the creation of centralized North Sanpete justice court, where greater financial benefits would be realized due to “economies of scale,” as Mt. Pleasant City Councilman Justin Atkinson, who represented Mt. Pleasant at the meeting, put it.
“Spring City and Fountain Green have expressed interest in doing the same thing,” said Moroni Mayor Luke Freeman.
The retirement of Peterson from many justice courts in Sanpete gave occasion for cities to consider their courts. Mt. Pleasant, which began considering how to make its city court less of a money pit soon after former Mayor Dave Blackham took office in 2014, saw an opportunity to trim costs.
Under the agreement as currently proposed and discussed, Moroni would be home to the court for civil, criminal and traffic cases for both cities. Moroni would be the fiscal agent for the court. Mt. Pleasant would simply pay for a share of it through an agreement between both cities.
For the great majority of the hour-long meeting, participants tried to answer Councilman Todd Anderson question: “How do we come up with that number as to what Mt. Pleasant would pay in to the court?”
Moroni would be responsible to pay for judges, clerks, equipment and supplies, and other general operation costs. While the cities could agree to use prosecuting and defense attorneys in common, the general feeling was that the cities would choose their own.
“The court cost is pretty set once you get the judges salary, the clerks’ salary, and budget for travel, equipment, postage and so forth—the cost will remain pretty constant,” McIff said.
Inherent in that statement, and made explicit by Judge McIff later, is something about the differing nature of the two cities’ courts.
In a sample agreement that was more springboard than plan drafted by Mt. Pleasant and Moroni cities’ legal advisor Richard Chamberlain, and based on other such plans already in place in other cities, the proposed cost share was 50/50.
That didn’t quite seem to fly with Moroni Council members, who seemed to recognize that Mt. Pleasant’s cases would probably account for a greater share of the cost of the court.
“The whole reason we’re doing it is to save both cities some money,” said Councilman Jed DeMill.
The idea that got a lot of traction at the meeting was that the cities would split the cost based on a ratio of caseload.
That, too, met with a consideration offered by Judge McIff.
“If a court makes money it’s because they’ve written all these fines and tickets and people just pay them and it’s done,” McIff said.
That’s the kind of court Moroni tends to have: a lot of traffic and minor citation cases—things that are handled relatively quickly and without a lot of time spent in actual sessions of court.
On the other hand, “Mt. Pleasant doesn’t have a lot of that,” said the judge. “Mt. Pleasant doesn’t have a lot of that. Mt. Pleasant has domestic violence and and burglary cases and theft cases, and people come back over and over. I come here once a month, and it’s not anything like it is over there.”
That means the average court-revenue to court-time per case is much, much less in Mt. Pleasant. In other words, the Mt. Pleasant court pays for itself to a much lesser degree than does Moroni’s.
“My biggest concern is that Moroni citizens do not take a deficit running another court,” Councilman Anderson said.
Fact is, city courts often run budget deficits, something former Judge Peterson addressed from time to time during annual reports to city councils or other occasions. Some city departments and services can validly be expected to pay for themselves or even make a bit of revenue. Justice courts, Peterson insisted, was not one of those; the court was a government service so necessary that it must be provided even at a loss.
“We just don’t want to lose as much,” said Moroni Councilman Thayne Atkinson.
A court cost-sharing idea that was not expressed, but which Mayor Freeman later said could be examined, would be to split the cost by population.
“It’s an idea we can certainly go with,” Freeman said Monday. “We just haven’t discussed it at this point.”
Mt. Pleasant’s Atkinson indicated a desire on behalf of his city to do anything it needed I order to see the plan to fruition.
“We have a fairly large court. Our building is outdated. We’re not set up to do it. It would be very expensive to build a new city hall,” he said.
Indeed, Mt. Pleasant is one of only three Sanpete municipalities that have not moved into new city offices in the last 10-15 years.
Justin Atkinson indicated that Mt. Pleasant was looking for the least inconvenience possible, even “if we just paid Moroni City, and then they’re responsible for the court,” he said. “We understand we would be compensating to some degree, whatever we agree on, to pay a judge and a clerk and whatever the case may be.”
Mt. Pleasant might even be willing to not even worry about whatever revenue would be generated by Mt. Pleasant cases, he said. “I can tell you that if we just gave you all the revenue, take out our prosecutor, defender and judge, we’d still be coming out ahead.”
Moroni’s council plans to discuss the issue, with more specifics provided by Keddington and Mt. Pleasant Councilman Atkinson, at a meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 19, at 6 p.m. at Moroni City Hall.
Coming to some agreement at that time would enable Mt. Pleasant’s city council to take up the matter at a meeting on Sept. 26.
Whatever plan is agreed to would have to be accepted by the Utah Judicial Council of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts.