ILNews

Money woes 'going to get worse'

Michael W. Hoskins
November 26, 2008
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Economic Impact

Hammond City Judge Jeffrey Harkin represents what might signify a growing trend as the Indiana legal community copes with budget crunches and a turbulent economy.

Sitting on what he describes as the busiest and most efficient city court in Indiana, Judge Harkin is suing the Hammond City Council for slashing the court's 2009 budget by more than 10 percent, which translates to the loss of five employees.

The judge doesn't find it acceptable and thinks the cut is outside the city council's authority.

"Basically, this cut renders the court unable to maintain its efficiency," said the judge's attorney, David Weigle of Hammond. "There's a penchant for local politicians to be fiscally responsible budget cutters, but there's a broader question here of responsible budget cutting. This all seems to be politicians pandering to the residents about cutting budgets but not willing to accept the consequences of that."

HarkinJudge Harkin's lawsuit filed Oct. 24 symbolizes the tension being seen throughout Indiana as local officials are crunching numbers and trying to figure out how to best balance budgets for the coming year, a practice that's putting the legal community in the crosshairs.

It's a guessing game for many, as some budgets aren't yet certified by the state and the full impact of sweeping property tax reform won't even be known until sometime next year. Lawsuits are being filed or threatened, officials are warring with those in the justice system who say they can't perform essential duties without adequate resources, and county courts, prosecutors, and public defenders are being forced to deal with dire funding issues for 2009 while dreading what could be an even worse situation the following year

"We cut what we needed to, but my real concern is for the year beginning in 2010," said Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards, who cut $195,000 from her $6 million budget as all departments were ordered. "We are just able to work within these budget constraints now, but another year will be incredibly more difficult. If the economy doesn't turn around.... It's only going to get worse."

What looms is a dark cloud in a mammoth storm slamming the nation, the result of an economic crisis engulfing both the public and private sectors. While law firms scrutinize bottom lines and determine what impact economic woes will have on their practices, local governments are being forced to deal with the combination of sweeping property-tax reforms, decreasing revenue, rising costs, and overall anxiety about when the economy might rebound.

RichardsThe picture isn't good for Indiana, which faces a bleak forecast as lawmakers prepare for a long session to tackle the state's two-year budget. Economic forecasts are calling for the state to be about $600 million off its expected revenue mark, and that means legislators will have to address not only that significant shortfall but also broader, change-based issues in how government is run from top to bottom.

Counties and local governments have until Dec. 1 to submit their approved budgets to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. The state agency must then certify the budgets by mid-February, and tax rates won't likely be known until mid-2009. Simultaneously, local governments are nervous about what H.E.A. 1001 will mean because it takes away a significant chunk of property tax that's traditionally served as a revenue-generator.

"We're in a pinch," said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender's Council. "Everyone understood when this property tax reform was passed the full effect would be a year or two down the road. It's coming closer, and we're all going to feel it if something doesn't change."

Most public defenders are being told to expect 3 to 8 percent cuts for 2009, and the number is similar or higher for the following years, Landis said. That creates a problem for many that often operate underfunded offices with excessive caseloads but are required to meet standards to receive funding reimbursement from the state. Courts and prosecutors see the same issues when dealing with crime that tends to rise during tougher economic times.

"Crime doesn't go down because there's a recession; it instead has an inverse correlation, and it's difficult to do more with less resources," he said.

Statewide, judges and lawyers are doing what they can to make ends meet in this time of uncertainty.

ZareTo meet a 20 percent budget reduction this year by city officials in Gary, City Judge Deidre Monroe in September gave up money she'd set aside to repair two dozen courtroom seats that are broken and unusable. Instead of using that money from 2007, the judge decided to help meet a $100,000 shortfall in the city's budget.

But that only does part of the job. Judge Monroe also may need to cut some of her 60 staff positions, and that could mean discontinuing at least one of the 10 court calls scheduled every week.

Marion County Public Defender Bob Hill said he's leaving several positions unfilled but doesn't have to lay anyone off. It's the same scenario on the court side, according to Marion Superior Judge Gerald Zore and Court Administrator Glenn Lawrence.

The court's $57 million budget didn't get cut, and it was able to get some additional funding for state-mandated pay increases, a new civil court opening in January, and some more juvenile medical expenses, Lawrence said. The courts asked for additional money for staff but didn't receive it, and the court is now looking at more video conferencing and technology resources to try and save money, as well as not filling any vacant positions, he said.

Hill encouraged the courts to start collecting more fees from public defense cases, which could mean almost twice as much revenue from the $160,000 collected in 2007. While the office has trimmed expenses through attrition Hill is already evaluating what can and can't be cut during next year's budget process.

"We're at a point where we can't cut anything more out of the budget," he said. "There're no fray expenses; we're doing what we can without having to cut services, which would mean we could run afoul of the public defender standards and that has serious implications."

In Vanderburgh County, officials say it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Public Defender Stephen Owens said his $1.7 million budget showed no growth for 2009, with a slight reduction but pretty close to what it was for this year. He hasn't had any reductions in lawyers like others in the state that have seen 3 to 20 percent cuts for departments.

"Every county is in some sort of economic downturn, and that's certainly being seen this year," he said. "We're kind of better off, but not nearly as well off as we'd like to be. But the serious reductions might come next year; that's when we may really see the full force of this crunch."

LandisThe notion of working together on budget cuts isn't something everyone is taking to heart. Judges have filed multiple funding suits through the years, but some observe the current crisis could increase that amount. The issue also recently has surfaced in Steuben and St. Joseph counties, among others.

Judge Harkin's suit seeks a permanent injunction against the city from cutting his budget from $853,459 to $728,480 and asks the court to mandate the council appropriate sufficient funds. He'd requested an $813,779 budget for 2009.

"We think the law is pretty clear that as long as the budget isn't extravagant, which it's not, they don't have the authority to cut it," his attorney Weigle said.

The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled on the issue of judicial mandates and said trial judges and county officials must work together, as both share the responsibility of setting court budgets. The Commission on Courts earlier this year didn't reach any decision on mandates but said one possible way to resolve some of these issues could be in statewide reform of county court funding.

That idea is gaining steam in Indiana, with many pushing for restructuring that could free up county money and shift that funding responsibility to the state.

A catalyst for that realistically happening during an upcoming legislative session could be local government reform work done in the past year. Those types of reforms came in a report released late last year by a committee co-chaired by former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. The report suggested a flurry of government reforms, such as sweeping property tax reform that's already happening and eliminating township government offices. It also included recommendations for a possible a shift in funding from counties to the state for public defense, county courts, and probation.

"This time is difficult for local governments, especially for criminal justice agencies that are reacting to what happens in society," Landis said. "County government has to provide the funding or we can't do our jobs, unless the state decides to pick up some of the costs. This is a part of the Kernan-Shepard report, and my message would be that this is a good

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  1. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  2. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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  4. I grew up on a farm and live in the county and it's interesting that the big industrial farmers like Jeff Shoaf don't live next to their industrial operations...

  5. So that none are misinformed by my posting wihtout a non de plume here, please allow me to state that I am NOT an Indiana licensed attorney, although I am an Indiana resident approved to practice law and represent clients in Indiana's fed court of Nth Dist and before the 7th circuit. I remain licensed in KS, since 1996, no discipline. This must be clarified since the IN court records will reveal that I did sit for and pass the Indiana bar last February. Yet be not confused by the fact that I was so allowed to be tested .... I am not, to be clear in the service of my duty to be absolutely candid about this, I AM NOT a member of the Indiana bar, and might never be so licensed given my unrepented from errors of thought documented in this opinion, at fn2, which likely supports Mr Smith's initial post in this thread: http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1592921.html

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