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Benton County officials eyeing courts needs

Questions over number of judges, building usage persist by Tom Sissom | June 13, 2016 at 1:00 a.m.

BENTONVILLE -- Benton County officials continue to have questions about a proposed new courts facility.

The Public Safety Committee on June 7 discussed the most recent report from consultants hired to examine the county's needs, now and into the future, for the circuit courts and related offices and services.

What’s next

Benton County’s Finance Committee will discuss plans for a new courts facility when the committee meets at 6 p.m. July 7 in the Quorum Courtroom at the County Administration Building, 215 E. Central Ave. in Bentonville

Source: Staff report

Barry Moehring, justice of the peace and the Republican Party nominee for county judge, questioned the report's estimates that showed the county increasing the number of circuit judges according to increases in population and caseload. The report estimates the county will need five new circuit judges by 2030 and space for that many more courtrooms and supporting staff. The county now has six circuit judges.

Obtaining approval for new judgeships historically has been a complicated and slow-moving process, Moehring said. Information from the state shows several other judicial districts already have heavier caseloads than Benton County, which is one of the criteria for approving new judgeships, he said.

"I think Benton County's ability to receive a new judgeship in the next couple of years is very strong," Moehring said. "But other jurisdictions will also be able to make a case that they need new judges. I don't think there will be enough to go around for us to get five judges in 10 years. We're definitely due, but they tend to come one at a time. They don't typically come in multiples."

A request to create a new circuit judgeship has to go through the state's Judicial Council, which is made up of all of the state's circuit judges, appellate court judges and Supreme Court judges, according to Circuit Judge John Scott. The Judicial Council has created the Judicial Resource and Assessment Committee to review requests before the council considers them. If the council endorses a request, the judgeship has to be approved by the state Legislature as well.

Scott was involved in the last effort to gain approval for a new judge for Benton County's 19 West Judicial District. That effort led to the creation of a new position, the Division 6 post to which Doug Schrantz was elected in 2008.

Scott and Schrantz said a proper request for a new judgeship will demonstrate the district's immediate need based on growth in population and caseload, with the availability of adequate facilities also being a factor.

"It takes a couple of years to pull together the information," Schrantz said. "Then you have to approach JRAC and go down there and essentially prove your case. Then you have to go to the Legislature with a bill and a sponsor and get it passed there.

"I don't see that as an impediment," Schrantz said of the approval process. "If the forecast of the study is accurate we fully expect to be able to get approval for the judges we need."

"I think that if we made the decision to apply for a new judgeship, it would be successful," Scott said.

Plans for a courts building have been heavily discussed the past few years. A study in January 2014 identified three sites -- two downtown and one on county land on Southwest 14th Street near the jail and Road Department. County Judge Bob Clinard favors the Southwest 14th Street location, citing the greater ease of construction in an open space, minimal disruption of the current courts facilities and other downtown activities during construction plus room for parking and future expansion if needed.

The Public Safety Committee endorsed a downtown building project early in 2015 and the Finance Committee spent some time exploring financing options for a downtown building. Work on the proposal was delayed in September after the county's six circuit judges sent a letter to Clinard and the Quorum Court opposing both downtown plans as inadequate.

The letter -- citing concerns over security, access for the public and judicial system employees, parking and future expansion -- prompted the decision to seek a consulting firm to help with the project. Perkowitz, Ruth & Cromwell, the consultants chosen, presented initial findings to the Public Safety Committee on June 7.

The Finance Committee is now set to debate the project, with the panel deciding whether to approve the $119,500 needed to continue the site evaluation and preliminary design work on the project. Tom Allen, committee chairman, said the justices of the peace need to clearly define the project before spending more money. Getting a reasonable expectation on the likely number of judges the county may have will be part of the discussion, Allen said.

"That's one of the biggest issues we're going to have to resolve," he said. "That's going to require dialogue with our circuit judges, with our legislators and possibly with someone from the governor's office. If they can agree we're likely to get the number estimated in the study then we need to plan for that. If not, we have to look at our options. Those are parameters we're going to have to look at, whether we're talking about expansion space for future growth or building space right away."

Clinard repeated his arguments that building on the county-owned land on Southwest 14th Street remains the best choice, whether the county chooses to build a smaller facility now and expand in the future or to build a larger facility immediately. The larger tract of land on Southwest 14th Street allows the county to be flexible now while still meeting the needs of the future, he said.

"We've got six judges and courtrooms now," Clinard said. "You have to build them in pairs, so you're going to build at least eight to start with. I don't think you can even consider less than eight. The downtown site will accommodate eight and may accommodate 10, but never more than that. Why would we spend $30 million or $40 million knowing it's going to be for a limited time frame? It won't be a long-term solution downtown."

Moehring said he's not convinced the county needs to build one new building to house the courts and related offices right now. By using the county's existing facilities, he said, a more modest expansion is a possible solution. That smaller solution could use county reserve funds and avoid the need to seek voter approval of a tax increase, which Moehring has predicted will fail. The smaller solution also gives the county time to see if the predicted growth continues.

"I do believe we need to use the existing courthouse facilities," Moehring said. "Then we can look at an expansion to provide for one or two new judgeships in the near future. More than one or two new judges, I think that's pretty far down the road."

NW News on 06/13/2016

Print Headline: County officials eyeing courts needs


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