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Elizabeth Pagano is the editor of the Austin Monitor.
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Travis commissioners approve creation of two new criminal courts
Wednesday, February 6, 2013 by Elizabeth Pagano
After several months of deliberation, Travis County Commissioners voted 4-1 Tuesday to move forward with the process needed to create two new criminal courts. Only Commissioner Margaret Gomez was opposed.
Though the Texas Legislature will ultimately need to approve the two proposed courts, the Commissioners agreed on bill language asking for their creation on Sept. 1, 2015.
“I’m trying to be as careful as I can with taxpayers’ money, and careful about the commitments that I make,” said Gomez. “This is probably an $8 to $10 million commitment.”
Gomez has consistently opposed creation of the two courts, citing the use of taxpayer money as a primary concern. On Tuesday, she added a “space crunch” in the county to those concerns – worrying that the cost of finding room for the courts could cost the county more than estimated.
The annual estimated costs of the new courts was about $2.4 million for the district court plus one-time costs of $361,119, and about $2.5 million for the county court-at-law, plus one-time costs of $355,000. The state pays most of the judges’ salaries with the county paying a supplement. However, the county pays the salaries of other court employees and operating costs. District judges typically have a court coordinator, a bailiff, a court reporter and one or two court clerks. County courts-at-law typically have three or four employees.
Last fall, Susan Spataro, who was fired by the district judges after 24 years as County Auditor, returned to the commissioners court to discourage this course of action – invoking the ever-present specter of legislatively imposed revenue caps, and their unknown impact on the county’s budget should they be implemented.
Though Spataro was not present yesterday, District Judge Julie Kocurek nonetheless assured the commissioners that the judges were willing to wait until the county was able to facilitate the courts, both in terms of space and money.
“In the event the county was faced with some financial crisis, you could have our word that we would not push forward on the creation of these two courts,” said Kocurek.
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said that the assurances by Kocurek had given him the comfort that he needed to support the bill.
Based on previous discussions, commissioners were asked to choose between two versions of the bill.
The last time the matter came before the commissioners, they directed creation of what Intergovernmental Relations Coordinator Deece Eckstein termed a “contingent version” of the bill. This version would, in a nutshell, allow for the creation of the court while giving the county some flexibility in its funding. It did not prove popular.
Eckstein explained that the biggest concern with creation of the district court, in particular, was that creation of the court required the state to set aside budget money for the judge’s base salary and benefit. Asking for that money without a similar commitment from the county would not be well-received, said Eckstein.
“Frankly, the advice we received from our delegation members is the ledge is probably unlikely to do that,” said Eckstein. “That would be a tough ask.”
Eckstein also explained that it was important for the judges and commissioners court to present as a united front, and proceed forward together in the request for additional courts.
Ultimately, commissioners moved forward with the “clean” bill language, which will now be introduced to the legislature. Though it comes at a cost, Kocurek explained that increased costs came with an increased population, whether or not the courts were funded.
“Every year that we’ve created new courts, it has helped to keep down our jail population. We’re either going to be paying for this through new courts and more efficient justice, or we’re going to be having a backlog with a lot of people in jail,” said Kocurek.
“We’re planning for the future. We’re not asking for this tomorrow – this is in 2015. We’re trying to plan for the future…We’re trying to be proactive instead of reactive,” said Kocurek.
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