NWA editorial: Avoiding temptation?

Courts money not sacred, but must be carefully used

Posted: February 6, 2018 at 1 a.m.

Sooner or later, if anything is to get done by government, political leaders have to find the money to accomplish it.

It's popular these days among many who hope to get elected again to embrace anything that looks like a tax cut and to eschew anything that might be perceived as a tax increase. Critics of taxes in general have even taken to calling it a tax increase when an existing tax (such as sales tax) is extended to a new form of retail (such as online). Or, in the case of asking voters to extend the length of an existing tax so more capital projects can be paid for, they suggest that's a tax increase although the tax rate isn't changing.

What’s the point?

Money from fines, fees and forfeitures in Benton County’s courts system should be conservatively viewed as a source for funding as the county tries to build a new courts facility.

In effect, some folks want to starve government in the hope it will shrink, because government must be the problem, not the solution.

Except it's not, at least not always. And that's especially true when we're talking local, such as city and county government. If a town's residents want more sidewalks or trails, or streets, or a new building for government services, the money has to be found somewhere.

In Benton County, where plenty of political types work hard to be sure they sound like budget hawks, county leaders continue to examine ways to build a new courts building estimated to cost around $25 million. As Benton County grows -- and it's been growing by leaps and bounds -- it must invest in its facilities. The patchwork of courtrooms now in use has been stretched far enough. County leaders have debated how to solve the issue for several years.

A lot of design work is done and County Judge Barry Moehring has drawings for a building on Northeast Second Street in Bentonville. The sticky wicket, as usual, is how to pay for it. County leaders continue to chew on that issue, pondering a dedicated sales tax, the spending of some county reserves, the shifting of money already in the budget, or a combination of all of the above.

One idea tossed out in recent days was the allocation of revenue from court fees, fines and forfeitures. The notion, we suppose, is that the activity of the courts themselves could help fund the building the courts need. Those categories raised about $3 million in 2017, about half of which went into the county's general fund. The other half went to specific funds as required by state law.

That unnerves some folks, who worry about the courts becoming money-making operations rather than adjudicators of disputes and criminal cases. That's a fine concern. Nobody should want law enforcement or the courts focused on raising money more than they're focused on fair application of justice.

We appreciate that line of thinking. It's wise. But should there be any source of legally accessible money that's off limits once a need is identified?

If fees, fines and forfeitures have generated a certain amount of money through the years, and that money goes into the county's coffers for general use, at least a portion of that money should be considered available for this building.

Those worried about an undesirable effect on the courts -- collecting fees or fines based on a desire for revenue -- are not unreasonable: Judges and county leaders must guard against any such influences. There should never be pressure for more money from the courts' operations.

If county leaders can't live within those parameters, however, it's best not to establish the temptation.

Commentary on 02/06/2018