On Jan. 1, 2019, Stow Municipal Court officials will mark a decade since the court relocated and by all accounts, it will be a happy celebration.
Stow Municipal Court Judge Kim Hoover said he and his colleagues are “very happy” since the historic action of relocating their operation from Cuyahoga Falls to Stow in 2009.
It was, and still is, the only time in the history of the state that a municipal court moved from one host city to another. Court officials partnered with the city of Stow to build the courthouse on an 8.5-acre site off Steels Corners Road off Route 8. The city owns the land and the building, while the judges function as the operators and custodians of the court. The overall cost of the courthouse project was $11 million.
For Hoover and his colleagues, the move to the stand-alone site has been successful because it provided a larger space, offered an ADA-compliant site and gave the court a chance to provide programs that help people who come through the system. Taxpayers should be happy, too, because so far, all of the facility’s construction costs have been covered by court-generated revenues, according to information from the court.
The court serves the communities of Boston Heights, Boston Township, Cuyahoga Falls, Hudson, Macedonia, Munroe Falls, Northfield, Northfield Center Township, Peninsula, Reminderville, Sagamore Hills, Silver Lake, Stow, Tallmadge, Twinsburg, and Twinsburg Township.
Hoover said changing the court location offered plenty of benefits. There is a larger amount of space and it is completely handicapped-accessible. Putting the site further north of where it had been coincided with the growth of the district’s population. The northern part of the court’s district has experienced the most growth: In 1953, there were 60,000 people in the district; of that amount, 40,000 lived in Cuyahoga Falls. Today, there are 200,000 people in the district, with 50,000 in Cuyahoga Falls.
“This is basically on the Route 8 spine,” said Hoover. “We are a little south of the middle of our territorial jurisdiction. The middle of our territorial jurisdiction is really Boston Heights, but this is the middle of our population. This site was what I had in mind.”
Hoover noted the larger, more modern facility provides accommodations that are helpful to all parties in a case. “We have space so that we can bring defendants in through doors that do not bring them through the middle of the public,” explained Hoover. In Cuyahoga Falls, he said “a murderer and a victim’s family would come through the same opening, sometimes standing in the same line. All that’s been wiped out with the modern courthouse.”
The facilities are available for a larger and more complete probation department, the judge said. “Before I had one probation officer. Now I’ve got five probation officers and they all generate revenue.”
Financing the construction
The overall cost of the courthouse project was $11 million. Hoover said the court paid $1 million to secure the 8.5 acres of land for the project and the construction of the building, as well as items such as construction of a roadway and the extension of a bike path, cost $9.2 million. Court administrator Rick Klinger noted once expenses such as the architect fees, the construction supervisor and information technology are factored in, the overall figure is about $11 million.
Jon Turney, the court’s community control manager, said the city secured bonds to cover the cost of constructing the courthouse, with the court transferring money from its special projects fund to Stow to repay the bonds. The special projects fund was created “several years” before the court’s relocation and contains fees that “are a part of all cases that come through the court,” explained Turney.
The city of Stow and the municipal court judges entered into a Memorandum of Understanding in February 2007 when the project started, and amended the Memorandum in November 2010 after the court was built, said Hoover. The payments, which are being made toward the $7.5 million cost of the building construction itself, began at that time.
The payments are supposed to end in October 2035, but Hoover said the court is currently nearly four years ahead of schedule on its payments and noted the court has already paid $440,000 on the construction debt this year. As of now, about $4.9 million is still owed, according to Klinger.
A year ago, Hoover told Stow City Council that the court was not bringing in as much money as it once did; however, he said, that trend “turned around . . . This year, collections are up, case numbers are up, the money’s up.”
Klinger added he thinks the court’s “best success is, we’ve been able to hold down costs.”
Having community service workers handling both lawn care and janitorial services saves the court about $60,000 a year in expenses, according to Hoover and Klinger. An offender could, for example, spend a set amount of hours working in the community garden in lieu of paying a fine.
“If people have a special skill, we put it to use,” said Hoover. As examples, he noted a stage in the court’s community garden and a pair of bike racks were built by people doing community service work.
The court’s community garden produces about 2,000 pounds of vegetables which Hoover said are donated to the Food Bank. “People who did minor wrongs can now do something major good,” noted Hoover. “The poor are eating as a result of their efforts.”
Income tax money, employment
John Baranek, Stow’s finance director, said the court generated $35,269.57 in income taxes in 2017 and is projected to generate $33,384.80 this year.
Baranek noted there are 36 full-time employees and 16 part-time workers at the court. He said he was “not quite sure” where those numbers would rank on a list of employers in the city; however, he added it “is safe to say” the court is not among the top 10 employers in the city. He said the city provides one police officer at the court at an annual cost of $86,439.91. Hoover said there are also retired police officers who handle security at the court.
Baranek explained the city only needs to appropriate more money if the court is running a deficit that it cannot cover. In such a scenario, the city would appropriate general fund money to cover the deficit and then the city would bill all of the entities in the court district the following year.
With the exception of its first two years of operation, the court has been able to cover any operating deficit, according to Baranek.
The court uses money from its special projects and probation funds to cover the operating deficit between revenues and expenditures, according to Klinger. For this year, Klinger said he is projecting about a $500,000 operating deficit, which he said will be covered by money from the special projects and probation funds.
In 2017, expenditures were a little more than $2.6 million and revenues without subsidies from the special projects and probation funds were approximately $2.07 million. A $434,028.86 subsidy from the court’s special projects fund and a $100,000 subsidy from the court’s probation fund allowed the court to cover its operating deficit. In 2016, the court had a little more than $2.7 million in expenditures and about $2.15 million in revenues without the two subsidies. A $428,589.26 subsidy from the special projects fund and a $125,000 subsidy from the probation fund covered the difference.
Klinger said a special projects fee of $20 is added to each case filed in the court and goes into the special projects fund. He added there are multiple fees that encompass the probation fund, including $50 a month for probation, $200 for diversion programs, $50 for sealing of records, and between $5 a day and $30 per day for alcohol electronic monitoring. He noted some of the diversion program money goes back to the affected jurisdiction.
Future of court
State Issue 1, which appears on the Nov. 6 ballot, is seeking to convert all fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug charges into misdemeanor offenses. All of those drug offenses would be “immediately sent to us,” said Hoover. “Which is an overwhelming prospect.”
Klinger estimated such a scenario would add “a couple hundred thousand dollars in expenses” to the court’s budget.
If it is approved, Hoover said the court’s future plans will focus on preparing to accommodate a much larger caseload. In 2017, Hoover noted there were about 480 fourth- and fifth-degree felony drug offenses that his court sent to Summit County Common Pleas Court. If Issue 1 passes, all of those cases would remain in municipal court.
In that event, Hoover said he would have to create a new division of the court, and look at either expanding the building or reapportioning uses of the current facility. “If it passes, we will spend virtually all of our time on that,” said Hoover.
In addition to the higher caseload, Hoover noted that repeat offenders could no longer be put in jail.
“The fear of going to jail helps motivate people to get help,” noted Stow Municipal Court Judge Lisa Coates.
Besides that, the biggest upcoming plan is to work toward paying off the debt.
Hoping for continued success
In addition to being the only municipal court that changed its host city, Hoover noted, “Nobody else has ever covered their expenses and paid for the building. We don’t get credit for that.”
In addition to the efforts keep expenses down, Hoover said the court is situated in an “affluent district where people pay their fines and costs.”
Hoover said the court also has stability because both he and Coates have remained at the court rather than using it as a “political launching pad.”
Stow Municipal Court Magistrate John Clark said he feels the move “has been beneficial to everybody.”
“I’m hoping it will last 50, 60, 70 years,” stated Coates.
Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.