Court consolidation back on the table
Just when an effort by the Grady County Commission to consolidate the magistrate, probate and state courts appeared to be going no where the issue was raised again Tuesday night and instructions were given to the county administrator to formulate the cost savings created by the proposed consolidation and report back to the board as soon as possible.
District 3 Grady County Commissioner Charles Norton brought the matter back up for discussion Tuesday night.
“I know on the consolidation of the courts we voted last meeting to table it indefinitely, but I’d still like to see some firm numbers. I still think there are cost savings by consolidating the courts,” Norton said.
Vice Chairman Billy Poitevint spoke out in favor of merging all three courts rather than only merging probate and magistrate court.
“In Dougherty County the state court judge appoints the magistrates. If we go ahead with it and we do all three I think we’re better off than just consolidating the two. It would be more cost effective,” Poitevint said.
While other counties in Georgia have consolidated probate and magistrate courts, Grady County would be the only county to consolidate all three.
Grady County Administrator Rusty Moye agreed to pull together cost projections, but he warned the numbers he came up with would total much less than projections made by others including a proposal presented two weeks ago by Chief Magistrate Larry Bearden.
“What I come up with may not be what others think is needed. I wouldn’t include two full-time judges or four and five clerks. If I did it, it would be to do an efficiency set up where you work as a team. When one goes to lunch the other works and vice vera. The way it is right now is not that way. I would do it for efficiency,” Moye said.
“That is exactly what we want,” Norton said.
The District 3 commissioner said his support of the concept was based on it being a cost saving measure. Without cost savings he would not support it, Norton told commissioners Tuesday night.
District 5 Grady County Commissioner T.D. David also voiced support for investigating further the proposed consolidation. He suggested Moye present options including cost savings to consolidate two of the courts as well as all three.
District 4 Grady County Commissioner Al Ball also favors the proposed consolidation and he repeatedly sought to determine if the board would unanimously support a consolidation effort provided it saved money.
“If we ask the administrator to pull together these numbers in what I predict will be a futile process and we are not unanimous we are wasting our time,” Ball said.
In previous discussions, Grady County Attorney Kevin S. Cauley had told the board that in the past members of the local legislative delegation had not been willing to carry local legislation in the General Assembly unless the local governing body requesting the change was unanimous.
Grady County Commission Chairman Elwyn Childs had previously stated he would not support the consolidation. On Tuesday night, the chairman remained noncommittal and did not offer his opinion during the renewed discussion.
Ball suggested the county proceed with putting the budget information together but not rush to put the question before the General Assembly, which convened last week, during this session of the legislature.
Vice Chairman Poitevint disagreed and noted, “If we can get the figures together and approve it we could get it approved this session. There would be no problem getting it in this year.”
Commissioner Norton pointed out that the current board may support the consolidation of courts, but a future board may have different ideas.
Grady County State Court Judge Bill Bass, who was present at the meeting Tuesday night, requested an opportunity to comment.
“There are two reasons to make the change. First and foremost is to create a more judicial situation. The state will tell you, you don’t need non-lawyer judges or part-time judges. It is a convenient time to do it and a critical place to save money. (Probate) Judge (Sadie) Voyles has said she does not plan to run again and if you make the change now, whether to do all three or two, you put yourself in a position to do something later,” Judge Bass said.
The state court judge said the argument not to consolidate the courts was to keep jobs available for others and had nothing to do with saving money.
“Forget me. You’ve got me for two more years and I’m gone. I strongly suggest you look at it in an unbiased way and purely as a situation that would allow you to save approximately $100,000 a year if you combined all three,” Judge Bass said.
There is some debate as to how and if all three could be consolidated. County Attorney Cauley researched the issue and communicated with officials in the Georgia Attorney General’s office who indicated that such a consolidation would require a change in general legislation rather than the simple adoption of local legislation.
“Kevin (Cauley) hears from the state that there is a problem with consolidating all three, but the constitutional authorities say there is not,” Judge Bass told commissioners.
The attorney general’s office cited potential for conflict because appeals of civil cases in magistrate court are referred to state court. Judge Bass says that in Dougherty County all such appeals go straight up to superior court.
The Grady County state court judge says that during his decade on the bench he has never heard an appeal of a civil or criminal matter from Grady County Magistrate Court.
“Judge Bass, in your opinion, could one judge handle all three?” Commissioner David asked.
“No question about it,” Judge Bass replied.
County Attorney Cauley suggested that if the board was unanimously in favor of moving forward with the consolidation of all three he could prepare the proposed legislation and the legislative delegation could forward it to the legislative counsel’s office, who would ultimately make the call if it could be done or not.
“If we’re going to try to do it this session however, we need to get it going,” Cauley said.
Commissioner Norton said by eliminating just the payroll and benefit package of one judge alone would save the county about $80,000 per year. Norton said if all three courts were consolidated only members of the bar would qualify for election, but if only magistrate and probate were merged a non-lawyer could serve.
“My recommendation to you would always be to have a member of the bar as a judge when dealing with a person’s rights and liberty,” Judge Bass said.
“I’m in favor of it, but I think we are spinning our wheels if we’re not unanimous and it’s not worth the effort. We need a consensus,” Commissioner Ball urged.
With all members of the board voicing support of the consolidation of a minimum of two courts if it saved money except the chairman, Childs instructed Moye to “get the figures together.”
However, the chairman said that due to poor health the board should not expect Moye to produce the figures overnight.
“Don’t expect a miracle next week,” the chairman said.
Last week Celeste Chason Tyler, the city of Cairo’s communication director, announced her intentions to qualify in May to run for Grady County probate judge. No other candidates have publicly made their intentions known.