Benton County officials concerned about use of fines, fees for courts building

Posted: January 29, 2018 at 1 a.m.

NWA Democrat-Gazette File Photo/BEN GOFF The Benton County Courthouse on the Bentonville square.
Zoom

NWA Democrat-Gazette File Photo/BEN GOFF The Benton County Courthouse on the Bentonville square.

BENTONVILLE -- The idea to use court fines and fees to pay for a new Benton County courts building concerns some county officials and those in the judicial system.

The county has been working on a courts building for several years. The most recent concept shows a four-story building with about 86,000 square feet of space on a site on Northeast Second Street in Bentonville.

What’s next

Benton County’s justices of the peace will resume their discussion of the county’s proposed courts building when the Finance Committee meets at 6 p.m. Feb. 6 in the Quorum Courtroom in the County Administration Building, 215 E. Central Ave. in Bentonville.

Source: Staff report

Plans call for eight courtrooms, jury deliberation rooms and judges' chambers with additional space for the circuit clerk, county clerk and other related offices. The county now has six circuit court judges with five housed in the downtown area and the sixth at the Juvenile Justice Center on Melissa Drive.

The building on Second Street has an estimated cost of $25 million. The Quorum Court has said as much as $5 million of the cost could be covered with money from the county's $13 million unappropriated reserve fund. The justices of the peace have discussed funding options for the remaining $22 million that include cutting the existing county budget; using fines, fees and forfeitures or other revenue; and a dedicated sales tax.

Pat Adams, justice of the peace for District 6, said he wants to avoid anything that could be seen as using the courts system to raise money for the county.

"I trust our judges implicitly," Adams said. "But I know for a fact there are a lot of towns that have operated speed traps as a way to raise money for their city government. That's why we have a state law that limits the amount of revenue you can raise that way."

Circuit Judge Robin Green said fines and fees are set with limits approved by the state Legislature. Some of the money is set aside by the Legislature for the courts and for law enforcement, Green said, and some goes to the local government.

"Fines are a punitive measure and are assessed within a set range on a case-by-case basis. The courts do not get involved in how the costs, fines and fees are appropriated," Green said. "It is part of the constitutional separation of powers between the branches of government."

Brenda Guenther, comptroller, said Benton County received about $3 million in revenue from fines, fees and forfeitures from circuit and district courts in 2017. Of that, she said, about $1.5 million went into the county's general fund and about $1.5 million into other funds as required by law. Guenther said those other funds included money for operation and maintenance of the county jail, prisoner transportation for the jail and courts, and the Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

Prosecuting Attorney Nathan Smith said he understands Adams' concern. Smith said the judicial system can't be concerned with raising revenue.

"The fines and fees have to be assessed just in the normal course of things," he said. "We are never going to try to ramp up that, the law doesn't allow for that. Our concern can never be what are we getting in fines or fees from this case. If you're doing that, you're doing it wrong. I can see where that kind of perception could undermine confidence in the integrity of the justice system."

[EMAIL UPDATES: Get free breaking news updates and daily newsletters with top headlines delivered to your inbox]

State Rep. Dan Douglas of Bentonville, said he would think twice before relying on court fines and fees to repay a bond issue over a long period of time. The county is considering bond issues with a repayment period stretching as far as 2043. Douglas said the Legislature could reallocate the money at any time.

"I don't know what the Legislature will do in the future, and we can't bind future legislators," he said.

County Judge Barry Moehring said the fines and fees option is just one possibility. He said if the county proceeds with a market research survey as he has proposed, part of the survey would gather information about the different options being considered.

Michelle Chiocco, justice of the peace for District 10, said she doesn't like the idea of a bond issue no matter what the source of money to pay it might be. She also said she doesn't favor cutting the budget over 25 years to pay for the cost of a bond issue.

"I'm a pretty much a proponent of the 'Pat Adams one-and-done' sales tax right now," Chiocco said. "I don't think the county needs cuts in services, and it would be irresponsible, in my opinion, to cut from the Sheriff's Office, the jail or the roads. I don't know where else you'd cut that much."

NW News on 01/29/2018