“Obviously, we want to always become more efficient, but at this point in time, if we are not required to make any more budget cuts, we will leave those satellite courts open,” said State Court Administrator Joann Odendahl in an interview last week.
Odendahl said that as court administrators begin work on a budget for the 2015-16 biennium, funding for the satellite circuit courts in Powell, Lovell and Dubois is being included.
Court administrators last year announced plans to close those courts by July 1 to meet required budget reductions. However, Wyoming lawmakers included a provision in the budget sparing the three courts — which generally handle misdemeanor criminal cases and smaller civil matters — until at least April 1, 2014.
Between now and then, the court leaders and the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee are scrutinizing the Powell, Lovell and Dubois courts for savings. Services at the Dubois and Lovell courts are being scaled back.
Park County Circuit Court officials — on their own initiative — took several steps years ago to consolidate in Cody and promote efficiency. For example, all civil cases are filed in Cody, the judge only comes to Powell six times a month and the Powell court office is only open three days a week (Monday, Tuesday and Friday) to reflect its lower caseload.
Court officials have acknowledged they weren’t aware of those steps until meeting with Park County officials in Cody back in May.
“This is a process, frankly, we probably should have done before we made the recommendation (to close Powell) in the first place,” said Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kite, the head of the state’s courts, at that meeting. Kite said there had been a time crunch last year.
At the meeting, court administrators suggested further shrinking the Powell court by shifting most of the area’s criminal cases and citations to the Cody office — while leaving the office open to the public as it currently is. Administrators have calculated that the shift would theoretically save close to nine hours of work each week.
The calculated nine hours of savings, Odendahl told the Tribune, is not based specifically on the situation in Park County but on overall figures for Wyoming courts.
“There is a duplication of work and paperwork and coordination of files back and forth when you have a satellite court,” said Deputy State Court Administrator Ronda Munger in May.
Park County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters has so far chosen not to implement the recommendations.
He and Clerk of Circuit Court Court Peggy Farman had questioned the efficiency of the administrators’ proposal at the meeting in May. They noted it would (as the Legislature required) keep the Powell court open and staffed for the same number of hours but halve the workload of the Powell clerk.
‘Doesn’t make any sense’
Waters said the county attorney’s office would no longer be able to use its four Powell staff to file criminal paperwork.
“They’ll have to get it over to Cody and do it in Cody rather than Powell, which doesn’t make any sense to me when you have a clerk sitting over in Powell,” Waters said.
“It will make Cody much more busy and (the Powell clerk) less busy and as circuit court clerk, that doesn’t really seem to work well because that’s not being efficient for where our people are actually sitting,” added Farman.
Kite said the court administrators were not forcing the Park County courts to adopt the proposal, but “we would encourage you to look at changing some of these filings.”
The administrators presented the same recommendations to the Joint Appropriations Committee on June 28.
Back at the May meeting in Cody, the proposal prompted Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric to wonder if administrators are moving towards closure.
“I think that’s ultimately where this is headed,” said Skoric, who, like the county’s other officials, opposes the Powell court’s closure.
Skoric predicted that after shifting filings to Cody, administrators will go to the Legislature and say, “It’s already done. So let’s close that office.”
Odendahl noted the Legislature has kept the court open so “the fear of absolutely losing your court right now is off the table.” However, she added, “if the Legislature requires us to make additional budget cuts, we may have to look at that again.”
‘We’re only talking $8,000’
Compared to Lovell and Dubois, Powell’s court is significantly busier and its closure would save much less money.
While the Cheyenne-based court administrators did not bring the figures to the Cody meeting, they’ve previously said the savings from closing Powell’s court would amount to about $7,225 a year. It costs about $556,600 to run the Powell and Cody circuit courts each year.
Closure would make Powell, population 6,308, the largest Wyoming city without its own court by a long ways. Currently, Mills — a city of 3,500 located just a few miles outside Casper — is the only town or city with a population above 2,600 without its own court.
“I’m just kind of at a loss if we’re only talking $8,000 when we’ve got that big of a population base (in Powell),” said Skoric.
Odendahl responded that “it’s more efficiencies of the court than cost savings.”
Park County commissioners offered to cover the cost of keeping the Powell court open, but were turned down by Justice Kite.
Kite reiterated her opposition to letting Park County foot the bill in May, citing concerns about disrupting a unified state court system.
“We really don’t want to go that way,” she said. “The state either ought to fund this branch of government fairly ... or not try to do it uniform.”
At least one member of the Legislature’s Joint Appropriations Committee, however, appears to be more open to the idea than the chief justice.
The news website County10.com reported that at the June meeting, committee co-chairman Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, said if Park County wants to help with the funding, “I’d say that is still on the table.”
Powell closure would shift costs
Park County’s willingness to take on the funding is in part because the county simply doesn’t have any room to spare in the Park County Courthouse. It would also force the city of Cody to stop using the Circuit Courtroom for municipal court on Tuesdays, when Judge Waters is now in Powell.
While saving the state one or two trips to Powell a week, it would mean more traveling to Cody for Powell-based personnel from the Park County Sheriff’s Office and the city of Powell Police Department.
“We’re in essence saving the state money, but we may be costing the city of Powell more money,” Judge Waters said in May. “That’s one of those things the Supreme Court might not be too worried about, but the city of Powell might.”
It would also mean more Powell-Cody travel for defendants, who can be of limited means.
Waters cited a then-recent defendant from Powell who appeared by phone because he just didn’t have the ability to get over to Cody.
“For most of us, it’s not a big deal, but for a lot of the people we’re seeing in court, it’s more complicated than what we kind of first think about,” Waters said.
The fairness question
Court officials in Cheyenne have argued the closure of the Powell, Lovell and Dubois courts is a matter of fairness, since most counties have only one circuit court. They also note it’s “only” 24 miles to Cody.
“On average, every town has to travel about 40 miles” to the nearest circuit court, Odendahl said in May. To back that up, administrators provided a map showing how far some small Wyoming communities have to travel. For example, the map notes residents in Wamsutter (population 455) have to travel 70 miles to the circuit court in Rock Springs.
However, Sen. Ray Peterson, R-Cowley, took issue with the map highlighting communities that all have fewer than 1,850 residents.
“When you look at 43 miles to Bondurant, Wright, Jeffrey City, Dixon ... Pine Bluffs, Kaycee, the population is a little bit different” than Powell and Lovell (population 2,381), Peterson noted.
Kite has described the Powell, Lovell and Dubois satellite courts as “not busy,” but that’s not the experience of local court officials. Waters said court days in Powell are generally fairly busy and state work studies show the cases in Powell justifies a clerk position here.
“It’s not like there’s a shortage of folks to see over there,” the judge said. Skoric said a recent court date in Powell had 12 settings — representing people who would likely instead have to travel to Cody.
In legislators’ hands
Peterson opposes closing the courts in Powell and Lovell, but he said they and the court in Dubois are “low-hanging fruit” in budget discussions.
“These three satellite offices stick out like a sore thumb and people think we’re being treated differently up here,” Peterson said.
Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, was one of those who helped get the provision in the budget to keep the satellite courts open. He’s optimistic about the state’s projected revenue and thinks the closures may be unnecessary from a budget perspective. That was the same take offered to the Tribune earlier this year by Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, who co-chairs the Legislature’s judiciary committee.
Park County Commissioner Bucky Hall traveled to Riverton on June 28 to personally make the case to the lawmakers on the appropriations committee about keeping the Powell court open.
“Just about everything you can possibly imagine I pointed out to them,” Hall said of his pitch to lawmakers.
He said some of the Powell population “already feels they’re ignored by the state — and even by the county government — and I said this (closure) is just going to be another kick in the teeth at them from the big brother.”
Commissioners pledged to continue lobbying for the Powell court. The Joint Appropriations Committee next meets in December.