BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — Since winning a seat on the court in November 2017, fiscal responsibility has been a primary focus for Maumee Municipal Court Judge Dan Hazard.
Campaign-ing on a promise to reign in court spending, Hazard got right to work after unseating longtime judge Gary Byers, who served on the bench for nearly 24 years.
Turning his attention to staffing and revenue collections, Hazard was able to whittle down a court deficit to less then $500,000 at the end of 2018, which is the lowest it has been in the past decade.
First, the court staff of 25 decreased to 18 – mainly through a decision not to replace those who either resigned or retired. In addition, Hazard eliminated the practice of keeping clerks on duty in the evening and on weekends. For many years, city council and the mayor had asked Judge Byers to eliminate those after-hours clerks, but he refused to follow that directive.
“We don’t do that anymore and that has been a significant cost savings,” Hazard said.
The court has also engaged the services of a collection agency to pursue unpaid fines, which again, was something that the previous judge would not agree to implement.
According to Hazard, the cases that are not paid after a 30-day stay, or those who have not made payments pursuant to their payment plan, are referred to a collection agency. As a result of the new policy, the duty of collecting past-due fines has been removed from the clerks. The collection process, which began on July 1, has yielded well over $60,000 thus far.
“It seems to work and it takes a lot of the burden off the staff,” he said.
Prior to implementing this policy, a warrant block would be attached to a file in order to prevent an individual with outstanding debt from being able to renew their license plates until such debt was paid. However, by paying a small portion of that debt, such as $25.00, the warrant would be lifted and the license plates could be renewed.
Every time that happened, a warrant fee was also added to the case, therefore over multiple years that debt, which could begin at hundreds of dollars, would potentially balloon to thousands of dollars.
Now, a warrant block is not removed until the entire fine is paid. If an individual cannot pay a fine in full and provides appropriate documentation proving it, the warrant block can be removed as long as that individual follows through with payments via a payment plan.
“We’re not trying to overburden the people who cannot pay. We’re not trying to trap anybody,” Hazard said. “We’re just trying to collect fees fairly and the old way didn’t work.”
In addition to making changes to staffing and revenue collection, the court also realized a cost savings by renegotiating a contract with Lucas County to cover costs associated with work release beds and by renegotiating a contract with a vendor to monitor ankle bracelets.
The court is also implementing annual employee reviews, something that hadn’t been completed previously.
While several changes have been made to increase efficiency, there are looming problems in regard to file retention that could set the court back significantly. According to Hazard, a file destruction schedule had not been adhered to previously and as a result, there are hundreds of boxes filled with thousands of individual files in the basement of the courthouse that have to be scanned, then destroyed. Some of the cases date back almost 40 years, he said.
“It appears as though we are going to have to hire somebody to go through each file to determine what needs to be kept and what can be scanned and destroyed,” said Hazard.
While the exact cost is unclear, Hazard estimates that it could run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to follow through with an up-to-date record retention program.
The court is also working through bookkeeping issues that have made balancing the criminal traffic account impossible.
Clerk of courts Andrea Shrewsberry has been trying to solve the problem that she said resulted from failure to void out checks that were submitted to the court, but later bounced for insufficient funds. Because the checks were not voided or reversed and money was paid out to other agencies, Maumee’s account comes up short on funds.
“My hope is that we will start fresh in that account so that all of our books can go to zero and auditing won’t be issue,” Shrewsberry said. “It’s been a difficult transition to figure out where it went wrong – it’s created quite a headache and we are just trying to do our best to make sure that we do not have bookkeeping errors going forward.”
Hazard does not want to disparage the previous administration and remains focused on moving the Maumee court forward with as much efficiency and honesty as possible.
“For me, having transparency with the public and transparency with the city is a top priority,” he said.