Camas proposes new independent municipal court

Move away from contract with Clark County could save the city at least $100,000 annually

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A proposal to form a new “bureaucratic level” of city government could actually end up saving Camas thousands of dollars.

During Saturday’s annual city planning conference Larry Linne, the current Camas court security officer and a retired Portland police detective sergeant, divulged the results of a research project that began in September.

His charge was to determine the feasibility of and costs associated with having Camas, as the lead agency, and Washougal operate their own independent municipal court instead of continuing to contract with Clark County.

The results were quite clear.

“If we had a locally run court, with a corrections component, we could operate the court at a substantially reduced cost and generate substantial revenue,” Linne said. “The savings of this program is really far-reaching.”

Since 1966, Camas and Washougal have had an inter-local agreement with Clark County District Court for judicial and corrections services.

Last year, in a cost saving effort, Camas and Washougal started assuming most of the expenses related to the equipment and municipal court building, located at 89 “C” St., in Washougal.

However, judges and court clerks continue to be contracted through Clark County, at an expense of about $271,000 in 2011. Camas pays 70 percent of the operational costs while Washougal pays 30.

“Make no mistake about it,” Linne said. “[Clark County] does make money from providing us these services.”

According to Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey the city is required by law to provide municipal court services, but has few options for where to get them.

“We are a captive customer,” Lackey said. “They are offering the service, and we have nowhere else to go to get it.”

“The [costs] are what they are, and [the county is] inflexible to change them,” he added. “Each year, the numbers never go down. They always go up.”

Linne said Camas and Washougal can hire their own employees, including a judge, court administrator, court clerk and judicial assistant, to operate the court at a total cost of approximately $210,000 per year.

In the proposed scenario, the mayoral appointed judge would wear two hats by providing both the judicial and probationary services.

“When used properly, a judge can administer misdemeanor probation monitoring for most defendants,” Linne said during the presentation. “In this model, almost all costs associated with corrections shrink or go away.”

Linne estimated that court costs could be reduced by more than $100,000 annually. In addition, the city could realize revenues from fees charged through corrections programs including electronic home monitoring, active monitoring while a defendant is on probation and work crew, which is already a successful program operated by Camas.

“If we have a locally run court, I think it would be better,” Lackey said. “I don’t offer this lightly, because it is a big project. It is creating a new city department.”

Some drawbacks to not contracting with Clark County could include the loss of legal support and free legal resources, liability concerns for active monitoring of criminals on probation, and more work load for city attorneys and the city finance department.

Camas City Attorney David Schultz said these are all issues to take into consideration, but he does not consider any of them prohibitive of the proposal moving forward.

Lackey said during the course of the feasibility study contact has been made with Washougal Mayor Sean Guard, as well as Washougal Police Chief Ron Mitchell and Washougal City Attorney Scott Russon.

A presentation about the proposed plan will be made to the Washougal City Council within the next couple of weeks.

“This is really a win-win when we do it together,” Lackey said.

If Camas and Washougal leaders decide to move ahead with the endeavor, and both city councils approve it, Lackey said Clark County District Court must be given a one-year notice.

Camas City Administrator Lloyd Halverson said he has been in touch with Clark County Administrator Bill Barron about the possibility.

“They may not love it, but they understand why we are having the conversation,” he said.

If continued financial data analysis into the potential endeavor continues to yield positive results, the goal would be to have the court up-and-running by Jan. 1, 2014.

Lackey admitted that setting up and running an independent municipal court will not be simple.

“It comes down to one question,” Lackey said. “Are you willing to take on the headache in exchange for the cost savings?”

Most council members seemed to answer this question in the affirmative.

“It’s value for less [money],” said Councilman Don Chaney, the former Camas police chief. “From what we’ve seen today, it all connects. My only comment would be that I wish we could do it sooner than 2014.”