Today’s Garden City Observer reports that the city of Garden City has approached neighboring Dearborn Heights about consolidating their two district courts.
This is the opening salvo in what could — and should — be a series of such consolidations among cash strapped communities in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties. The three counties are the largest in Michigan, together home to almost 40% of the state’s population. They are also home to numerous small units of government and their affiliated service providers: the many suburban Detroit enclaves that each fund their own police, fire, dispatch, lockup, library, recreation, and district court operations. These are usually the most expensive services provided by local cities, villages, and townships. In most cases (but not all), we still have each municipality trying to “go it alone” on providing these services.
In many noteworthy cases, such as Pontiac, Highland Park, River Rouge, and Ecorse, small distressed communities have been through emergency financial management. Some are still operating under an emergency manager, some have been in the past, others likely will be again in the future. Just today, in fact, the news reports on layoffs of Pontiac police officers by the city’s emergency financial manager. What’s never been reported, until now, is that each of these small, struggling cities has its own District Court, which is often a financial drain on the community’s finances. In fact, there is a strong correlation between reductions in police staffing by distressed communities, and reductions in court revenues. Fewer cops writing citations leads inevitably to less revenue to run the local courthouse. These revenue shortfalls are made up from the city’s general fund. Often, this leads to disputes between City Council and the local judge. Council controls the purse strings, but finds itself frustrated that it don’t control the actual spending in the judge’s domain. Sometimes, this has even resulted in court orders from the frustrated judge to the frustrated council.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. As an artifact of Michigan’s strong home-rule tradition, which dates back to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, local municipal courts were allowed to transition to district courts serving only the boundaries of each municipality. In historically less populated areas of the three major counties, there are district court authorities that serve several municipalities. As these areas have grown in wealth and population over the years, we have been left with a patchwork quilt of court jurisdictions of various sizes. Indeed, it can be said that the charter townships, often a target of consolidation advocates, are now providing court service in a much more efficient and cost effective manner than the numerous small cities that form the older inner ring suburbs of Detroit.
As readily seen in the above map, outcounty areas of Western and Southern Wayne County are served by only three district courts, the 33rd, 34th, and 35th. Specifically, seventeen communities, a total population of 340,635, are served by these three courts. That’s one District Court for every 113,545 people. Contrast this with the patchwork of single-municipality courts in the rest of the county. In District Courts 16 through 32, twenty communities run eighteen courts. The Grosse Pointe Communities still have municipal courts, but each run their own for five more courts. That’s a total of 23 courts, not even including the City of Detroit. Excluding Detroit, there are 787,809 people served by 23 courts, or one court for every 34,252 people. By comparison, Detroit’s 772,419 people have one court, the 36th District.
Population served in each court runs from very low, 8734 in River Rouge, 10,221 in Ecorse, 14,061 in Harper Woods; to highs around 100,000 in Dearborn and Livonia. (Note, all population figures come from SEMCOG July 2010 Estimates.) There simply must be a better way to organize delivery of an important service such as this.
Fortunately, there is an independent analysis of caseload and juducial resources available from the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO). This biennial report, last issued in September 2009, documents the caseload in each district and circuit court in the state, and makes recommendations to the legislature on the number of judgeships it should add or delete in each jurisdiction. Historically, this report has been used to justify adding new judges to courts in growing areas. Unfortunately, the SCAO’s recommendations to reduce the number of judgeships in shrinking cities has fallen on deaf ears. Another shortcoming of the report is that it only considers each district or circuit court on its own, without regard to population trends, demographics, or geography.
Recently, I have conducted my own analysis of the district courts in Wayne, Oakland, and Macomb Counties. I have taken into account the SCAO’s 2009 caseload analysis, population of the municipality served, geography, the municipality’s fiscal indicator score, and the general state of the physical courthouse itself. One result of this study is the Wayne County map shown above, believed to be the only map of its type. Analysis of Oakland and Macomb Counties will be discussed in upcoming blog posts.
Advantages of multiple communities sharing a district court are plentiful. All costs can be shared among a larger population, generating a larger caseload, often resulting in adequate fee revenue to operate the court without subsidy by any community. Indeed, the largest court authority, the 35th, has a history of distributing surpluses to its member communities each year. Oversight is maintained by a court administrator, with ultimate responsibility filtering up to the elected officials in all communities, through each community’s representative on the court authority board. The employees work for the court authority, rather than any one community, relieving any one community of the responsibility for legacy costs. In practice, the judge(s) and court administrator are simply outnumbered by the representatives of the municipalities, who keep a sharp eye on expenses. Even the smallest of the participating communities gets to share in the economy of scale enjoyed by the largest communities. Consolidation truly has a record of success in this case, to the taxpayers benefit.
If courts in the inner ring suburbs could consolidate, it can then be argued that they would benefit immediately from larger economies of scale. Rather than focus on eliminating judges, whose pay comes from the State of Michigan anyway, numerous other operating costs would be saved by simply transferring the judges’ courtroom to a shared facility. Caseload presently handled by locally funded magistrates could be handled instead by state funded judges. As in a corporate merger, redundancies could be eliminated and efficiencies taken. In many cases, old and worn out facilities could be vacated. In other cases, the small communities never had the ability to build a dedicated courtroom, so operations can be moved to more appropriate neighboring facilities.
From a high level, it is apparent from looking at the map that we presently have many courts clustered in relatively close quarters in the inner ring suburbs surrounding Detroit. Opportunities for consolidation were then studied in further detail in the east side, west side, and downriver areas. The jurisdictions and number of judges in each court were established by the legislature under Public Act 236 of 1961, Section 600.8121.
For comparison, the district court authorities in out-county areas were analyzed to determine the potential to smaller districts into larger districts. Those three courts, previously shown to serve an average of 113,545 people each, consist of the following:
- 33rd 7 Communities 90,212 People Weighted Caseload 1.82 Judges
- 34th 5 Communities 84,908 People Weighted Caseload 3.03 Judges
- 35th 5 Communities 165,515 People Weighted Caseload 2.44 Judges
Note that each of these courts presently has three judges. In some cases, judgeships were added during the last decade in recognition of population trends.
When looking at opportunities for consolidation, some situations became immediately apparent:
- The economically distressed communities of Hamtramck (2008 FIS=5) and Highland Park (2008 FIS=6), each continue to operate their own court (30 & 31). Although their combined population is only 36,681, each has a weighted caseload need of 0.72/0.78 judges, which is obviously rounded up to one judge apiece. It can easily be seen that these two communities would benefit immediately by consolidating the 30th and 31st district courts into one. Discussions with the legal community revealed that the courthouse in Hamtramck recently underwent renovation and repair, and would be a better candidate for use than the Highland Park facility. If so desired, the two courts could even be disbanded, and the two communities could be absorbed into the 36th District Court in Detroit.
- The 14,061 person east side enclave of Harper Woods (2008 FIS=6) has it’s own court (32A), which only has need for 0.59 judge. The enabling statute establishes the 32B district court for the five Grosse Pointes, also allowing for one judge. The five Grosse Pointe Municipal Courts could be merged into this one District Court, which could then be consolidated with Harper Woods. A new analysis should be conducted to determine how many judges are necessary, likely only one or two total for the 61,224 people of these six communities. More importantly, six facilities and staffs could be consolidated into only one.
- In central Wayne County, smaller communities Garden City, Wayne, and Inkster (all with 2008 FIS=4) are struggling with deteriorating financial conditions. They have a combined population of 72,252, but each has its own district court with one judge apiece. Combined caseload is 2.46 for these three courts. Nearby, larger cities Dearborn Heights (pop. 55,351) and Westland (pop. 83,446) each have a court with two judges. The Westland Court, in particular, has a need for 2.89 judges, while the Dearborn Heights court is centrally located in a new facility on Michigan Avenue. This presents multiple opportunities for consolidation. Garden City, Wayne, or Inkster could immediately consolidate with larger Westland, while providing them a judge to handle the increased caseload. (Note Wayne and Westland already share a school district.) Likewise, any of these communities could combine with Dearborn Heights. An analysis of net caseload, combined with location and population, suggests that perhaps the most efficient consolidation would be Wayne-Westland and Dearborn Heights-Inkster. Garden City could effectively consolidate with either entity, providing an option for consideration.
- Downriver, there are seven courts covering nine communities with a combined population 231,371. Although there are presently ten judgeships in this area, the combined caseload calls for slightly over eight (8.03). Because of the way the municipal boundaries are configured, the largest community, Taylor (pop. 63,936) actually has a net need for 0.70 judgeships. Conversely, the smallest communities, River Rouge and Ecorse, have a net need of -1.05 judgeships in their two courts. As in central Wayne County, this sub area has multiple options for consolidation. The 28th District Court in Southgate could be consolidation with either the 23rd in Taylor to the west, or the 27th in Riverview-Wyandotte to the east. The 25th District Court in Lincoln Park could be consolidated with the 24th in Allen Park-Melvindale, creating an opportunity to reduce one judgeship. Alternatively, the 25th could be consolidated with the 26-1 and 26-2 in River Rouge and Ecorse, again creating an opportunity to reduce a judgeship. As another alternative, the 26-1 and 26-2 could be consolidated into the 27th, again consolidating a judgeship.
In summary, numerous opportunities to consolidate district courts exist in densely populated Wayne County. Struggling communities who are subsidizing their own district court need to seriously consider how to combine with their neighbors to share the cost of this vital service. Since the judges salaries are paid by the state, this is not about threatening their jobs, and they should not resist these moves. However, all other costs of operating a small district court can be addressed by simply consolidating service areas with a larger population, as has been done in the 33rd, 34th, and 35th District Courts. As court jurisdictions are defined by the State Legislature, this is a matter that should be taken up in early 2011 by Governor Snyder and the new leadership in Lansing.
Upcoming blog posts will analyze the situation in Macomb and Oakland Counties, where similar situations exist today.