County tax funds to pay for new courtrooms
Introduced last month by the Board of Commissioners, the bill, which passed out of committee with a unanimous favorable recommendation, represents the county's annual appropriation of county economic development income tax, or CEDIT, money.
According to county Auditor Pete Mullen, the county expects a CEDIT settlement of about $8.7 million this year, on top of about $6.8 million left over from previous years.
The CEDIT rate in the county is 1 percent, up from 0.8 percent in 2009, when the county and the city of South Bend elected to increase it to counter the effects of the poor economy and Circuit Breaker Law on property tax revenue.
The county managed to build a surplus in its CEDIT account, Mullen said, by keeping a lid on spending over the past several years.
The bill, which will be considered by the County Council at its meeting June 12, appropriates $1.5 million to renovate parts of the first and second floor of the County-City Building, formerly the county jail, into four new, ADA-compliant felony courtrooms.
The new courtrooms, to be used by the county's four felony judges — Jane Woodward Miller, Jerome Frese, Roland Chamblee Jr. and John Marnocha — will free up space in the 1896 Courthouse, making it possible to schedule more civil jury trials there, Chief Superior Court Judge Michael Scopelitis said.
"The civil judges in this building (the 1896 Courthouse) for almost 20 years have had to share courtrooms," Scopelitis said. "David Chapleau, Margot Reagan and myself share one courtroom. So every six weeks, each of us gets two weeks in that courtroom to hold jury trials, which really makes scheduling very, very difficult.
The additional space will also allow the court to take better advantage of the services of its senior judges, Scopelitis said, and to petition the state for additional magistrates to handle the abundance of small claims and traffic and misdemeanor cases in the county.
"Our magistrates are so overworked," he said, noting that the court's two magistrates — Richard McCormick and Brian Steinke — work an equivalent of 100 weeks each year, according to weighted caseload measures calculated by the state.
If all goes to plan, work on the new courtrooms, each of which would include a jury box, a jury room and judge's chambers, could begin as soon as next month, Commissioner Andy Kostielney, R-District 1, said.
The bill also appropriates about $1.5 million to supplement the county's annual paving program, $2.4 million to cover bond payments related to infrastructure work completed as part of the AM General expansion and $1.1 million for new police radios.
The police radios are mandated as part of an effort to improve emergency communications in the state.
Given that it faced no opposition in committee, Kostielney said he expects the bill to pass out of the council without issue, whereupon it would then move to the Board of Commissioners for final approval.
The County Council next meets at 7 p.m. June 12 inside council chambers on the fourth floor of County-City Building, 227 W. Jefferson Blvd.
Staff writer Erin Blasko: