by Mayor Tammy
During my State of the City, and recently in our quarterly newsletter insert in the City of Meridian Utility Bills, I brought to the attention of our citizens, a 22-year-old court order that could potentially have an unfair impact on them and residents of Garden City. Meridian and Garden City are being held to a 1994 court order to build a courtroom in each of our cities. As you might imagine, there are a number of events that have transpired over the 22 years since this order was created. Many questions arise as a result as well - such as why wasn’t it addressed then? Did the 1996 vote to consolidate courtroom facilities and the resulting 2002 opening of the Ada County Courthouse not satisfy the need? Since the Ada County residents paid for one building, why is the County coming back and asking our Meridian and Garden City citizens to pay for another building again? Is there a need that our two cities specifically are being directed to fix by adding additional court facilities?
The short answer is no. The resurfacing of the 1994 court order by the County is not about needing additional court facilities, it is about money. Let me explain.
The 1994 Court order wasn’t brought up as an unresolved issue during the 1996 vote to consolidate courtroom facilities. It wasn’t brought to anyone’s attention during the 2000 ground breaking or the 2002 opening of the consolidated Ada County Courthouse in Boise - to serve all of Ada Country. It wasn’t brought up when we, as Mayor and Council, asked the County if they wanted to consider a courtroom in City Hall during our planning phase in 2004. Interestingly, the Commissioners reasoning for not wanting a courtroom in Meridian at that time was to keep all courthouse activities in one place. This made sense both logistically and remained true to the voters’ decision in ‘96 to centralize courtrooms. There was no mention of the 1994 order until 2010 when Meridian and Garden City were sent a bill for using the courtrooms in the Ada County courthouse. Yes, a bill to use the Ada County Courthouse that ALL Ada County residents paid to build and pay to maintain. Were we surprised? Yes! We were even more surprised when the Ada County Commissioners sued our two cities for money for using the Courthouse and require a courthouse be built.
So the dialogue began. We knew the county couldn’t charge us for facilities that are not located in our city, but we struggled with a number of questions. We sought to understand.
First question - what was the problem we were trying to fix with this old order? The County told us they were ‘just enforcing a court order’ from 1994….in 2010? Their reasoning to bill us, and then to sue us: We hadn’t built a courtroom so we should pay [to use the one our citizens helped pay to build]. We asked, with all that had transpired since 1994, didn’t that change the validity and need of this order? The ‘96 vote of the people, the opening of the courthouse in 2002, the request from Meridian to have a courtroom in 2004?
Second question - does the county want to decentralize the courts against the decision of the voters in 1996? Would this be in the best interest of the taxpayers? We have yet to talk to a county official or judge who believes it would be in the best interest of the citizens to decentralize. The county’s answer was that the ‘94 court order said we needed to build one.
Third question - is there a need for two more facilities? Is the Ada County Courthouse not sufficient for courtroom needs? What is the problem we are trying to solve? Even today, if you walk down the hall at the Courthouse at any given day between 3pm and 5pm, there will always be at least one if not more, completely empty courtroom, and Ada County has placed other, non-court related, operation services at the Courthouse – so court space is not an issue in the present day.
Fourth question - Meridian and Garden City asked if the courts weren’t paying for themselves. Our belief was the taxpayers were already paying their share but court fees hadn’t changed since the 1970s. We offered to join the county in proposing legislation that out-of-date court fees be brought up-to-date. Meridian and Garden City began work on this. We talked with our legislative officials and received the support of the Association of Idaho Cities on this legislation. Ada County was not at the table however, and the effort couldn’t move forward without the county support. The cities also offered to undergo steps for the transfer of court fees that cities can receive if there is a courtroom in their city; because the fee currently goes to the state. Our offer was to petition that it be assigned to the county and that was put on hold.
I, personally, have not been opposed to supplying a courtroom - as demonstrated by our request in 2004. I have felt we could offer our citizens greater access to services they might need. However, I learned this comes at a huge cost to our taxpayers. The cost of decentralizing our courts has ripple effects and inefficiencies to our judges and the County Clerk’s Office. Depending on what, ultimately, the courts decide and if we need to provide courtroom space, it could also potentially impact the County Prosecutor, the Public Defender, and the Sheriff’s Office. Bottom line, this makes no ‘cost’ sense and would be very inefficient.
Meridian’s population is 20% of Ada County’s total number of residents but only 17% of the caseload volume. Of Meridian’s caseload volume, however, just short of 60% of the cases are NOT Meridian residents. Meridian’s court load would require use of a courtroom for 1-2 days a week. Does this justify building a courtroom? We don’t think so. Courtroom facilities were addressed two decades ago and fulfilled in 2002 with one centralized location.
This isn’t about numbers. This is about money and it’s not right to ask just a few targeted communities to pay more when this is a countywide issue. We are all taxpayers to the county, regardless of what city or unincorporated area we live in and those taxes should fund our court facilities. My job is to represent Meridian and serve the taxpayers in the City; I take this very seriously. We shouldn’t have to pay twice, and certainly no more than any other Ada County citizen. This belief is shared by our City Council and by elected officials of all the cities in Ada County.
We had hoped the County Commissioners would agree that the 1994 order - and all the events that have happened since - doesn’t make sense 22 years later. We have asked the Ada County Commissioners to stand with us to ask the courts to revoke this old order. We have suggested that if the courts and the county believe that there is a current issue - today, in 2016 - that a new order be issued. We can then begin the process the Supreme Court required and hold a public discussion on whether a facility or facilities are needed and how it should move forward.
We work with the county on a number of important and critical issues. We have sought to come to the table multiple times, most recently on KTVB’s Viewpoint, but the County Commissioners have refused. We need to discuss what makes sense today. We are elected to lead. We should also be expected to come to the table and publicly have a conversation about how we, as two cities and one county can move forward. Can we do that? I am willing.
County Commissioners Contact: email@example.com or 208-287-7000
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