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FRIDAY, Dec. 21 — Legislation to unify Ingham County’s district courtrooms headed to the governor’s desk after state senators approved a bill last night that could trigger the consolidation.
The Senate passed House Bill 6344 nearly unanimously on the final night of the lame duck session. State Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing, sponsored the measure, which won House approval earlier this month.
The potential merger would combine courts in Lansing, East Lansing and Mason into a single 55th District Court by March 1, 2020. The bill doesn’t mandate the judicial shift, but instead gives local officials the ability to hammer out a formal plan by Nov. 1, 2019.
“I’d call it a very solid, next step,” said 55th District Judge Tom Boyd. “It’s authority for meaningful discussions to continue. I’ve emphasized how this was preliminary, but this was a substantial step forward.”
A new, eight-judge district court could be created — with countywide elections — under the move. Early plans also suggested the construction of a courtroom super complex near Lansing. Momentum has grown despite criticism from some district judges.
Officials have lauded consolidation as a way to reduce the commute for some residents. Some suggested the deal would save cash over several years as dozens of retiring court employees are left unreplaced within a more efficient, modernized and secure courtroom facility.
Most local officials had expected the legislation to pass without a hitch, especially considering it doesn’t mandate any formal changes and instead opens the door for continued regional collaboration.
Early proposals suggested each jurisdiction could eventually save on operational costs.
But 54A District Court Judge Hugh Clarke, of Lansing, said it would make it more difficult for people of color to be elected. Others, like 54B District Court judges Richard Ball and Andrea Larkin, both of East Lansing, suggested the concept of any expected cost savings have been inflated.
Officials have suggested a Michigan State University cornfield off Jolly Road could be home to a consolidated complex. A preliminary cost analysis suggested the three jurisdictions could share construction costs for a $29.3 million, 113,000-square-foot complex, presumably on that cornfield.
But hopes for a new county jail adjacent to the proposed court complex were dashed today. County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said in an email to officials that the plan “never got any real traction on many different fronts.”
“At this time, MSU is not willing to part with land in the Jolly/Collins/Dunckel area,” Wriggelsworth added, noting the complex will now instead be constructed in Mason. “I understand their reasoning, as I always felt this was a long shot. We even inquired into any privately owned land in and around the area, to no avail.”
As a result, officials are expected to head back to the drawing board next year. Voters approved a $70 million millage for a new jail in the August primary election.
“We can no longer hold up moving forward on this project,” Wriggelsworth added, saying there was “way too much on our plate to keep spinning our wheels, especially with the issues we deal with on a daily basis in our facility. The old saying is ‘You miss every shot you don’t take.’ This was worth a shot.”
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, an advocate for the complex concept, said Lansing could eventually save up to $1.8 million in annual operations to help edge down construction costs. Officials in East Lansing are analyzing the anticipated cost savings, should they decide to eventually support the consolidation next year.
County commissioners, for their part, have long considered court consolidation to be well worth the effort.
A Senate analysis noted the bill would have no fiscal impact on the state and an indeterminate, though likely positive, impact through attrition on Ingham County, Lansing and East Lansing. And those savings would only be realized if resolutions to consolidate the courts receive eventual approval within each local jurisdiction.
“It’s been 20 years,” County Commissioner Mark Grebner said previously. “We meet, come up with studies and then each municipality comes up with reasons not to do it. Then we start over again. We’re going to consolidate because the current system doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage on district court consolidation.