A view from the bench: CH court cut budget and added cases in 2018
In 2018, the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court cost taxpayers almost $70,000 less than in 2017, while hearing about 1,500 more cases, according to our just-released annual report. The court managed the savings while improving its Web access and providing more services for defendants, thanks to good planning and management by our capable and dedicated staff.
Part-time magistrates replaced a full-time magistrate. Other cost savings in 2018 included reducing the number of vehicles from two to one, and spending less on books, because the same information was already available on existing electronic research services.
The Court spent about $1.12 million in general operating expenses, which include employee salaries, postage for notices, translator expenses, and more. Major added expenses were improvements to the website and a new case management system. The more user-friendly website now allows search by address to determine if the city filed a criminal case against a property. The case management system creates digital court entries, saving paper and improving efficiency.
The Court collected fines and costs totaling just over $2 million. More than $1.5 million went to the city, and the remainder to the county and state. The Court has consistently raised funds well in excess of its general fund expenses, and 2018 was no different. However, I believe the Court should never be viewed as a revenue center. Its mission is to administer justice.
The Court transformed its collection procedures for those unable to pay all fines and costs. In the past, although not necessarily the case, defendants were told that all fines and costs were due on the court date. Now, payment plans are more transparent and more closely monitored, and payments can be made in person, by mail, or online via the website.
The Court heard a total of 15,833 cases in 2018, nearly 1,500 more than the year before. According to Supreme Court of Ohio 2018 case statistics (http://bit.ly/CleHtsMuniCts), adjusted for per judge caseload, Cleveland Heights heard 5,318 more cases than the average number of cases heard by the other municipal courts in Cuyahoga County, and 6,139 more than the average number of cases heard by municipal courts throughout Ohio.
Cleveland Heights Municipal Court heard a total of 2,461 criminal and 11,523 traffic cases.
The Court provides indigent defendants with appointed counsel not only on misdemeanors but at all felony hearings. This allows an attorney to be present, not only to counsel the defendant, but also to advocate on behalf of the defendant on matters such as setting bail.
We also improved the monitoring of, and services available to, defendants. For the first time in many years, the Court can conduct drug and alcohol testing. For the first time ever, the Court created a partnership to refer defendants to the specialized dockets of Cleveland Municipal Court, including the mental health and drug court. The partnership allows Cleveland Heights to provide defendants with the same benefits without the cost of creating duplicative specialized courts.
While the annual report (http://bit.ly/CleHtsCourtRpts) is meant for CH City Council, Cuyahoga County Council, and the county executive, I hope the citizens of Cleveland Heights will use it to understand the features, functions, and benefits of their Municipal Court. We are public servants, and come to work for more than just a paycheck. We strive to meet and exceed our obligations to the citizens and the public at large. I am proud of the work that we have accomplished at the Court, and look forward to serving for years to come.
J.J. Costello is a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident and judge of the Cleveland Heights Municipal Court.