TAYLORSVILLE — Elected officials are weighing growing budget deficits against highly renowned criminal rehabilitation programs in a fight for the life of an independent justice court.
Since 2007, the Taylorsville Justice Court has lost about $850,000, according to city figures. The department is on track to lose another $400,000 by midsummer.
The hemorrhaging has Mayor Russ Wall and the City Council thinking about closing the court altogether and contracting with a nearby city such as West Jordan or West Valley City for court services. The court handles traffic violations and B and C misdemeanor cases that originate in the city.
"I think that these options don't make sense in terms of the money that we would continue to lose," Judge Michael Kwan told the City Council on Wednesday. "Our first step shouldn't be nuclear Armageddon."
Thus far, the shortfall has been covered by Taylorsville's general fund.
"Is it worth the convenience of having the court in the city at the expense of paving roads or having a policeman on the streets?" asked newly re-elected Wall. "Most of the elected officials seem to think that it shouldn't be at the expense of police on the street and paving roads, and I'm one of the elected officials that thinks that."
Two major issues have caused the department to run at a deficit, Wall said. First, there was a time when fine collection ceased. That problem is being remedied with a system of accruing interest for late payment, garnishment of state tax refunds and personnel reorganization.
Wall also said he believes Kwan's drug court and domestic violence court are too expensive, though the programs have gotten praise throughout the state and even from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I'm not convinced we're getting the best results for the money we're spending, but I don't think they're bad," the mayor said. "I'm just not sure it's the responsibility of the taxpayers to pay for it."
The diversion courts allow defendants to make pleas in abeyance if they agree to a program of counseling and drug testing. Defendants pay for those services, but their fines are often commuted. Weekly meetings with judges, public attorneys, bailiffs and court clerks are not paid by defendants.
The cost to taxpayers is about $29,000 a year, Kwan told the City Council. Later, Wall disagreed with that figure but didn't provide one of his own.
Despite the disagreement on costs, defendants love the program.
"They've helped so many people here," said Shayna Larsen, who admitted to domestic violence-related disorderly conduct about 18 months ago.
Larsen had to do peer review sessions and take a parenting class.
"If you're compliant, (Judge Marsha C. Thomas) really works with you," she said. "She really helps you."
Larsen has a 5-year-old and is pregnant with twins. Friday, part of her fine was commuted in exchange for several hours of community service.
In other cities, similar problem-solving courts require far less judicial supervision, Wall said.
"If we closed the court, the way the city deals with drug and domestic violence issues would fundamentally change," he said. "It wouldn't go away."
The Taylorsville Justice Court opened in 1998, two years after the city incorporated. It operates in the same building as City Hall near 2700 West and 5400 South.
Kwan ran the court until 2001, when an administrator was brought on.
"The whole court is my baby," he said.
In 2007, the city of about 80,000 residents was processing 22,000 cases a year, said city manager John Inch Morgan. Since then, the case load has decreased by half, although the size of the city police department has increased, Wall said.
Extra staff is still needed because the cases have "gotten more complicated," according to the mayor.
During a City Council work meeting on Wednesday, Kwan asked officials to trust him, once again, with budget oversight. But after about an hour of questions for Kwan and court administrator Jamie Brooks, the City Council decided to give the court, as currently constituted, another chance.
The council is on a tight timeline for solving the court budget problem because Judges Kwan and Thomas have to file for retention elections in mid-March. If they are re-elected, the city would have to pay their salaries for six more years, regardless of whether the court remains open, Morgan said.
The issue is complicated by a troubled past between Wall and Kwan, assessed as "differences of opinion" by both parties.
In one case, Wall ordered the city to stop transporting criminals to drug court as a cost-saving measure. Kwan overturned the decree with a judicial order of his own.
Another time, Wall told the courts to stop issuing pleas of abeyance. Judges simply told him they would find another way to get people into the diversion courts, the mayor said.
So far, Taylorsville has reached out to neighboring cities about contracting but has not done any negotiation or cost assessments. Because of the city's size and case load, it would have to give some of the fines collected to whatever entity processes the cases.
"Nobody has the desire at this point to close the court," Wall said, "but at this point, it's not out of the question."
Taylorsville Justice Court year-end balance
*Budget year ends in July, so net funds are an estimate.