STOW: When northern Summit County’s municipal court moved from Cuyahoga Falls to Stow in 2009, the honeymoon with its new city was marred by a $1 million deficit and concerns from some city officials that the second year would bring more of the same.
“Everyone said, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling,’ ” Judge Kim Hoover said. “We just asked everyone to hold on a minute.”
The second year — and every year since — the court has managed to reduce costs and increase revenue, the end result being an annual surplus for the city’s coffers.
“It’s like any time you buy a new house,” Judge Lisa Coates said. “You have to buy things to get it all set up. Then it all settles down.”
Not only has Stow Municipal Court more than repaid the initial hit the city took in the first year of operation, but it also is ahead in payments on the construction debt for the $9 million courthouse. Its $40,000 monthly mortgage is paid through March 2017.
There was no shortage of skeptics when the Stow Municipal Court moved from Cuyahoga Falls in search of a bigger courthouse.
Falls officials said they didn’t want to subsidize the court anymore and were happy to let it go; officials in neighboring Stow saw economic development potential and were happy to take it.
When the court found itself $1 million in the red after the first year, the judges dipped into their special projects fund, which pays the mortgage on the building, to contribute $750,000 to the shortfall.
A state formula allowed the city to take back $150,000 in fines that had been collected by the court and distributed to other cities.
Because the host city is on the hook for any operating expenses the court can’t meet through the collection of fines and court costs, Stow had to make up the other $100,000 from its general fund.
But that scenario was never repeated.
• In 2010, the court cut expenditures by $200,000 and increased revenue $200,000. After subsidizing the budget with another $500,000 from its special projects fund, the court broke even.
• In 2011, cost of operations was cut another $200,000 and revenue grew another $100,000. The judges contributed $450,000 from special projects, enabling the city to make $171,000.
• In 2012, costs have been reduced another $100,000, revenue grew by $100,000 and special projects contributed $150,000. That resulted in another $50,000 paycheck to the city.
In none of those years did Stow need to take back fines distributed to other communities.
Staff is reduced
So how did the court cut costs by $500,000 and increase revenue by $400,000 a year?
For starters, the court now operates with a 20 percent smaller staff. Since 2009, 5.5 positions were cut through layoffs and attrition, Hoover said.
“That isn’t necessarily good, however,” Hoover acknowledged. “We do provide less of a service. The lines are probably longer.
“But you do what you have to do.”
Everyone’s pay has been frozen by the city for four years, and some retiring senior employees were replaced with lower-paid staff and part-timers.
The court has also turned some work previously done by private services to convicted nonviolent offenders assigned to community service. Most of the court’s landscaping and outdoor maintenance is an option for them.
Next year, Coates and Hoover hope to see community service workers performing 90 percent of the building’s janitorial work.
“They do a little vacuuming and buffing and dusting, but we hope to have them doing the lion’s share next year,” court Administrator Rick Klinger said.
In the revenue column, the judges point to programs the court has been able to keep in-house because of the larger building.
For instance, the court now handles its own house arrest cases rather than pay a private monitoring service.
“We had the initial cost of the equipment,” Hoover said, but now the fees offenders pay for being on house arrest are all profit.
Meanwhile, Clerk of Courts Lisa Zeno Carano hired a company to be more aggressive about collecting late fines, bringing in about $100,000, Hoover said.
Stow Mayor Sara Drew said she is pleased with the court’s progress and not surprised.
“I always thought things like a municipal court is a long-term proposition,” she said. “There are growing pains that happen with most long-term propositions, but if you stick with it and diligently work on the issues and everyone is committed to making it a success, then it will be a success.”
Drew said the judges and Carano deserve credit for “being as responsible as they could be.”
She added that the court does more for Stow than just make money.
A new office building behind the courthouse is a direct result of the court, and the city benefits from income taxes employees in both facilities pay.
“You also have that trickle-down effect where people come to the court who might not otherwise be here and spend money at local restaurants or gas stations or that kind of consumer spending,” Drew said.
She has also witnessed more intangible benefits, like increased clout with the city’s position as a host city.
“It has really elevated the city of Stow’s ability to speak on regional issues and regional collaboration because we’re the center of a 16-community court district,” she said.