Counties look to cover lost court costs

Posted at 8:46 PM, Jul 30, 2014
and last updated 2014-07-30 20:46:06-04

PAW PAW, Mich – A decision handed down in June by the Michigan Supreme Court could prove to be costly for many counties in west Michigan.

The high court decided that district and circuit courts do not have the authority to levy ‘court costs’ on criminals.

As many municipalities enter budget season, county administrators are scrambling to find a way to cover any potential shortfalls.

But according to Van Buren County administrator and comptroller Douglas Cultra, the answer to the long-term problem lies in Lansing.

“The state legislature can certainly look at the court decision and then adjust it and implement legislation that would correct the problem,” Cultra said.

In People v. Cunningham, the Supreme Court ruled circuit and district courts do not have the independent authority to impose costs on criminal defendants. However, the decision left in place statutory fines, the mandatory state judgment and the mandatory victim’s rights fee.

“The money that comes to the county, that’s the one that they hit,” said Cultra. “That’s the one that they found there wasn’t sufficient statutory authority to assess that. I can appreciate that. But it is kind of ironic isn’t it? That the revenues generated on behalf of the state weren’t touched.”

Based on the ruling, Van Buren County stands to lose more than $700,000.

“That in itself means that we are now gonna have 3 percent less of our revenues.” Cultra said. “That’s staggering. For us, we’re not a big county, but that’s probably 12 employees.”

Several other west Michigan counties expect to take a hit:

  • Calhoun County estimates losses of $425,000.
  • Kent County officials say losses in the circuit court will exceed $150,000, but through statutes available in district court, losses could be as little as $50,000.
  • Mecosta County estimates losses at $400,000.
  • Montcalm County believes losses will exceed $250,000.
  • Ottawa County estimates losses at close to $1 million.
  • Joseph County stands to lose nearly $500,000.

Officials in Barry, Ionia, Muskegon, Newaygo and Oceana counties are still working to determine how much revenue could be lost.

“I think that most of my colleagues are concerned about the impact of the revenue and it’s substantial,” Cultra said.

That’s why county administrators are now working with the Michigan Association of Counties, lobbying state lawmakers for a re-write of the court cost collection statute.

“Most of us have tight budgets these days, appropriately,” said Cultra. “We don’t want to misspend the taxpayer’s money. We have very little discretionary monies at this point.”