By CHRIS JACKETT
HEIGHTS – Officials here are considering the idea of consolidating district courts with Garden City in order to save money.
Garden City Mayor Randy Walker recently approached the Dearborn Heights City Council to discuss combining the Heights’ 20th District Court and Garden City’s 21st District Court. Feedback, however, was mixed.
“The city needs to look at considering the consolidation of the courts,” Heights Mayor Dan Paletko said. “If there’s a cheaper way to do something, you should look at it. The study would be to see if it’s feasible and how it would affect Garden City and Dearborn Heights in broad terms.”
Half of the $20,000 study cost about would be covered by a Michigan Municipal League grant. The two cities then would pay about $5,000 each to cover the remaining cost, Paletko said, although he noted that an additional grant might be available to further reduce costs.
“I think that’s way too high, personally. I can see spending $3,000 to $3,500,” council President Kenneth Baron said. “If all we’re going to do is break even, it’s not worth it.”
Paletko said the short-term expense could lead to a long-term benefit. He added that whether city employees try to balance an informal study with their daily tasks or a third party like Plante & Moran – who does auditing for both cities – is brought in, it will cost money to put in the hours to discover the true benefits of such a consolidation.
“Originally, (the council was) looking for a lot of details with cost savings, and I don’t think we need to do that with every cost,” Paletko said. “I think it’s generally assumed Garden City would come over to Dearborn Heights because we have the newer facility.”
Heights’ district court is included in the Justice Center that opened on the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Beech Daly Road in 2003 and also includes the Police Department. It has two judges.
In Garden City, the district court has one judge who works out of the City Council chambers, Baron said.
“In order to do this, you have to save money,” Baron said. “You go from three judges to two and cut court personnel, too. They have a different computer system, too. There would be more people, more traffic.
“(State Rep.) Bob Constan (D-Heights) said our two judges could handle more, and Garden City isn’t even near capacity.”
District court judge salaries are split 50-50 between the state and city in which they serve. If the two courts consolidated and one of the total three judges were eliminated, the two cities would split the bill for the two remaining on staff, paying 25 percent of each judge’s salary.
Other potential staff reductions could be determined if the feasibility study is pursued.
Additionally, with the two cities using different computer services, consolidating into one system potentially could provide additional savings.
“I don’t claim to be an expert, so that’s why it makes sense to have Plante & Moran,” Paletko said of commissioning a study to discover the economies of scale.
Paletko said Dearborn Heights already handles dog and animal control for Garden City and also is in discussions with Dearborn about possibly consolidating departments such as library, recreation, computer informational services and others. He’s willing to work with neighboring communities if it will cut costs for Heights residents.
“There’s a lot of possibilities out there and we just have to look at them,” he said. “We’re a service business. We take in taxes and give out services. I’d hate to cut services. I know that it’s starting to get tight for us, but it’s been tight for a few communities for a few years now.
“I’m open to any type of consolidation or mergers and all, with any type of department. That’s going to have to be the way government is going to have to go. We really have to start somewhere. If push came to shove, I really could listen to if we could spend the $5,000 on the court consolidation feasibility study.
Baron said the Heights’ libraries saw a record high in usage in October, so any consolidation with that department likely would see more use.
“I couldn’t see us closing a library, but maybe someone could merge with us,” Baron said. “Time will tell. It just can’t break even. There’s got to be some savings for everyone. I have a sneaky feeling we’ll be pretty aggressive come January on these issues.”
Paletko said Inkster approached the city in August about leasing space for its 22nd District Court, but that Inkster decided to go in a different direction in October.
Plans are under way for a new Inkster Justice Center to be developed at the current site of the YWCA of Western Wayne County, on the southeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Bayhan Street, with an opening set for March 2012.
The issue of consolidating courts with Garden City will be a key part of Tuesday’s study session for the Heights council and will be on the agenda at the 8 p.m. regular council meeting Jan. 11.
(Contact Chris Jackett at [email protected])