MOUNT VERNON — Knox County Common Pleas Court justice Otho Eyster isn’t one to follow the crowd.
But after years of resisting adding an allowable fee to certain items of court business, county budget woes have forced him to become what is thought to be the last county court judge in Ohio to implement the Special Projects Fund fee.
Instead of using the bulk of this money for equipment or simply collecting it for the sake of collecting, Eyster plans to use it to help pay for part of his staff.
“I’m hoping the Special Projects Fund will generate enough revenue to fulfill the commissioners’ request for budget cuts,” Eyster said. “We’re bare bones now.”
According to the Ohio Revised Code, Section 1907.24 (B)(1), county courts “may charge a fee, in addition to all other court costs, on the filing of each criminal cause, civil action or proceeding, or judgment by confession.”
Eyster said that from what he’s been able to gather from researching similarly sized and structured counties, his is the busiest single-judge court in the state, operating with only eight staffers and two parole officers. The other two county parole officers are paid through the state’s Adult Parole Authority program, and are not on Eyster’s budget.
Eyster compared his operation to the similarly-sized Guernsey County, where the common pleas court and probation department employ 15 people as part of an annual budget of $822,000. This is more than double the 2010 figure the commissioners asked Eyster to meet: $384,000.
“For 18 years, I’ve always returned money to the commissioners at the end of the year,” Eyster said, save for one year when an employee illness required use of all available funds to keep the court operating. He said that the severity of the current budget crunch was unprecedented in his years in county government, first as county prosecutor, then as common pleas court judge.
The additional cuts Eyster had to make to reach the desired budget level were in equipment and jurors’ fees. Equipment can potentially be paid for out of the Special Projects Fund, provided that enough income is present. But the cut in jurors’ fees cannot be redressed by the Special Projects Fund.
Eyster admitted that cutting the jurors’ fees was a gamble which may or may not pay off. He said that the court averages 12 to 15 jury trials per year, but that if more should happen to hit in 2010, he’ll have to go back to the commissioners later for more money.
“I’ve seen as many as 20 jury trials in one year, and as few as eight,” Eyster said. “There’s no pattern to it.”
Eyster said that he would look at further measures as necessary, but hopes that this plan will help steer the county around the land mines in the road to economic recovery.