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Elected leaders are on a ticking clock: Craft a plan to consolidate Ingham County’s three district court systems into one by November or abandon the lame-duck state legislation that makes the deal legally possible.
The bill makes no promises; it only creates an option for officials in Lansing, East Lansing and Mason to try to save cash and gain some key operational efficiencies by merging courts.
But as officials prepare to come to the table, the potential for cost savings isn’t necessarily clear. And results from a recent survey indicate most people are already satisfied with their courtroom business regardless — giving local courts high marks for efficiency, accessibility and treatment of the public in terms of fairness and respect.
“It would be hard to say if it would be financially beneficial unless we had a firm plan to go with it, in terms of access and location,” explained East Lansing City Manager George Lahanas. “Once we have something specific to look at, it’d be useful to have some expertise to look at the preliminary estimates. This is a big decision for us.”
Early proposals suggested the 54A District Court in Lansing could combine cases with the 54B District Court in East Lansing while the 55th District Court remains in Mason. The idea would be to find staffing efficiencies and accumulate collective savings over the next decade as the judicial system shrivels from three courtrooms to two.
Another iteration would keep the judiciary divided into three courtrooms but still cut costs through a more evenly distributed workload, with fewer employees for the same tasks. One less building would conceptually save more more cash, but the savings could also be offset by construction costs for a new, shared courtroom facility.
“I don’t think it’s possible to estimate any specific cost savings at this point,” said Michael Dillon, 55th District Court administrator. “We just don’t have a final plan where we can attach some firm costs. It’s just estimates.”
A county report suggested 11 to 14 (mostly clerical) positions could be phased out, trimming annual personnel costs by $750,000 to $1 million. But cumulatively, local governments still subsidize the three courtrooms to the tune of about $2.2 million annually. Some, like the 54A District Court in Lansing, cost more than others.
The report indicates Lansing spends about $1.8 million annually to operate its courtroom. Ingham County floats the 55th District Court by about $886,000 annually. East Lansing actually turns a profit on operations at the 54B District Court, generating about $460,000 in annual revenue, according to the county-created report.
All options remained on the table this week. But opportunity can also lead to continued uncertainty.
Ingham County officials aren’t sure courtroom consolidation would save them any money at all. East Lansing officials — who are already generating surplus revenue through the 54B District Court — haven’t yet formed an opinion. They plan to launch a financial audit later this year with the help of a third-party accounting firm.
Lansing Mayor Andy Schor spots savings and an opportunity to push forward with long-stalled plans for a new city hall. The administration of Virg Bernero, whom Schor replaced in 2018, accepted a proposal from Chicago developer Beitler Real Estate to turn the existing building into a luxury hotel after the city moved to the old Lansing State Journal downtown building. However, those plans did not accommodate 54A District Court or the Police Department’s lockup. That prompted Schor to put those plans on hold. Meanwhile, consolidation discussions continued.
Schor lifted the moratorium, though, after Michigan State University rejected the possibility of selling property that officials had eyed as a site for a consolidated justice center.
In a change of thinking, Schor told City Pulse last week that the city is looking at the possibility of spreading out government functions among multiple buildings, with the intention of keeping the most widely used consumer services under one roof.
Potential construction blueprints could simply be adjusted to include or exclude courtrooms as a courtroom merger potentially solidifies later this year, he suggested.
He said Beitler’s plan for the current City Hall remains his first choice. But he knows that Beitler — facing escalating interest rates on funding sources —could bail out before a decision is made.
As for court consolidation, Schor said, “My hope is that we have some savings, but if it were to be cost-neutral in the short-term and end up saving some more costs in the long term, that can still be good government.
“I don’t expect it to be cost negative at all. There are very few scenarios where we’d move forward with this and lose money.”
Even with all three facilities staying separated, consolidation offers to shift caseloads and ultimately save an inconvenient drive for the hundreds of residents in Lansing and Meridian townships who literally drive past a courtroom on the way to Mason. Those cases instead could be rerouted to East Lansing or Lansing facilities.
A recent survey conducted through the State Court Administrative Office indicates most of those who use the local courtrooms leave satisfied with the experience. Ratings have fluctuated over the last three years, but most respondents agreed that they “were able to get their court business done in a reasonable amount of time.”
The percentage of those the report said are satisfied with courtroom efficiencies ranged from 77 percent in Lansing to 87 percent in Mason. East Lansing officials sent a press release indicating that 92 percent were agreeable with the timeliness of their operations, but the statistics, in reality, were much lower at 83 percent.
East Lansing spokeswoman Mikell Fray said the misleading statistics came directly from court officials without her independent review. She issued a corrected press release after City Pulse notified her of the inaccuracies. Court Administrator Nicole Evans couldn’t be reached to offer an explanation.
But the question remains: If it isn’t broke, why fix it?
Consolidation would also shift the eight-judge district court into countywide elections. Lansing District Judge Hugh Clarke argued the electoral tilt would make it more difficult to elect a person of color to the bench. And Judge Andrea Larkin and Judge Richard Ball in East Lansing doubted the possibility East Lansing would save money.
“I’ve never understood this concept of big government being equated to good government, especially in terms of the courts,” Larkin said. “We have these three branches of government. Our goal is to deliver fair and impartial justice, and we’re doing that. I just don’t know why we would want to turn this into a bigger bureaucracy.”
Ingham County Commissioner Bryan Crenshaw said the conversation involves a regional approach to consolidate duplicative resources. He recognized Clarke’s concerns about diversity on the bench; Those need to be fleshed out, he said. But he also said the concept is more about streamlining operations than reducing costs.
“It’s money, but in some respects it’s also about good government,” added East Lansing Mayor Mark Meadows. “Is it efficient to have three district courts in a single county? Is it better to centralize those administrative costs in some way? I think it’s good government to take a look at this and see if we can reach an agreement.”
Officials previously suggested a Michigan State University cornfield off Jolly Road could be home to a consolidated complex. Preliminary estimates suggested the three jurisdictions could share construction costs for a $29.3 million, 113,000-square-foot complex, presumably on that cornfield. But then MSU dashed those plans, saying the timing was not right for such a sale.
County Sheriff Scott Wriggelsworth said the plan for that location “never got any real traction on many different fronts.”
Meanwhile, court consolidation hangs in the balance.
“We want to make sure that justice is available for everybody, but it’s also about the ability to save money for the cities and the county,” added State Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-East Lansing. “If we can find a way to make it work and save some taxpayer dollars, it’s worth pursuing but there are still some obvious questions that need answers.”
Visit lansingcitypulse.com for previous and continued coverage on district court consolidation.