The Merrillville Town Court Closure Makes Sense

The Merrillville Town Council at its July 26, 2022, meeting passed on first reading Ordinance 22-19 titled; An Ordinance Amending Town Ordinance 94-05 Entitled “An Ordinance of the Town of Merrillville, Lake County, Indiana, for the Establishment of a Merrillville Town Court”, as it pertains to the Closure of the Merrillville Town Court and the Orderly Transition of Cases and Repealing All Town Code Sections and Ordinances, or Parts Thereof, in Conflict Herewith.

The closure is something that was done in December of 2019 by the Town Council which lead to a lawsuit being filed by the Town Judge as he didn’t want to see the town court close, and he questioned the way the 2019 ordinance closed the court. That case has been pending for over two years. The town is naturally defending the challenge and what is also a tough pill to swallow is that the town (taxpayers) are also paying for the Judge’s attorney. So, we’re paying for the attorney of the Judge who is suing us over the closing of the court.

It’s crazy! The amount of money being spent can certainly be used on other things in the town. Let’s just talk about the facts so you may get a better understanding of what is happening.

The Merrillville Town Court operations have not been able to sustain or cover their own operating expenses with a combined 10-year total now over $1.7M. You read that correctly. One MILLION SEVEN HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS. Naturally, town services are not supposed to make money, but the courts were designed to cover their own operating costs and they did so for many years when first formed in 1994. For many years the caseload and fees collected covered all the town court expenses and offered a nice local service for our residents. There were many years where revenue exceeded expenses returning funding back to the town for other projects.

Fees and compassion may have affected court revenue. At times, Judges would lower or even not charge residents fees relating to their cases and instead had offenders do other things, community service, or other forms of restitution, or use the offense as a teaching experience for the offender. Although this is a nice approach for non-violent offenses it had the effect of lowering court revenue. Something that would not be noticed until the end of a budget year. And then it may not have even been considered as the reason revenue was down.

Police Department calls for service As our police department continues to get more and more calls for police services time that was normally spent on town ordinance violation items like speeding, improperly parked vehicles, and other ticketing violations was lower and with fewer tickets written, revenue in the town courts would also be lowered since there were fewer offenders to collect fees from. And since running a town court meant that you had to have the same number of employees, court bailiffs, and other personnel, those expenses continued with less revenue to cover the costs. This would not be noticed immediately until the next budget cycle.

Duplication of services is another reason why the current Town Council, or at least most of them, feel that it is time to close the court we have the Lake County Court system with many courts throughout the county. It has been said that the Town of Merrillville cases would be transferred to the County Court in Hammond; this is not necessarily the case as the State Office of Judicial Administration as well as the Lake County Office of Judicial Administration would reassign Merrillville cases on an allocation basis. Nobody can say with certainty that all cases will be transferred to Hammond. One court location is in Crown Point just 3.2 miles away (10 minutes by car) from the current town court.

Other hidden costs. The data shared here only reflects the funding losses that the town needed to cover to operate the town court. We don’t have raw data on what it costs to continue to provide other operational costs like town electricity to operate the computers, office lights, cleaning, sanitizing, and other hard dollar costs to have extra personnel in the building including offenders, attorneys, and others who are involved with the operation of the town court. In essence, the costs are higher than indicated in the following financial report.

It’s Good Government. The Cities of Hammond and Whiting have both closed their city courts and in fact, it was recommended in a report from Kernan-Shepard from the Indiana Commission of Local Government Reform that Hammond should close its court. Hammond’s move to close the court has saved the city $1.5 million per year. Naturally, Merrillville’s expenses are relevant to Merrillville’s size, but for the town to continue covering court expenses is not ‘good government’ when services are already being provided elsewhere. The service is not like police or fire service, it is a duplication of services provided by others that don’t need to be paid for by home and business owners in Merrillville.

The Formation of an Ordinance Violations Bureau. The Town Council will be pursuing the creation of an Ordinance Violations Bureau. The bureau can be administered, for example, by the clerk’s office, or any other designated office, and allow residents to come to the town hall to pay minor tickets that are issued by both our police department and town code enforcement. Having tickets issued by a town code violation will allow the fees to remain within the town coffers and not be shared with State or County governments which was a complaint by the town judge as to why the court was not covering expenses vs. revenues.

Other Options for Truancy Court. The Merrillville School Corporation is investigating ways to have a judge hear school truancy cases so they can continue to strive to keep students in school. They can certainly continue using the town judge until the courts are closed sometime next year, but other options may be available to them to continue with that program while not relying on the Merrillville Town Court. All is not lost on our desire to keep students in school where they belong.

The funding is just not there. Some have suggested that the Town Council can simply continue to pay for the shortfall in the town court operations which can be between $300,000 to $400,000 per year. The answer to this is easy, NO, we just don’t have extra funding to continue paying for the town court deficits. Just this year alone we had to cut over $1M from the estimated budget that we received from the town departments so our budget would be approved by the state. There is only so much money and $400,000 would outfit 3 new police officers which are badly needed in town. This is really about priorities and what is needed in our town. Naturally, those affected by the court closure have concerns and I feel for them all. These are tough decisions, but decisions that need to be made so the town can move forward.      

The bottom line:

The chart above and below indicates the annual net Expenditures over Revenues each year beginning in 2011 as well as the Year-End Accumulated Totals. For the year 2022, the figures represent about halfway through 2022 which is where the $1.7M loss is coming from. The town cannot afford to continue funding the services of the town court. A ten or eleven-year trend is a lot of data to make an informed decision on this matter. Note that red-colored dollar amounts are ‘losses’ vs revenues.

It is important to me to reiterate that this decision has nothing to do with the current sitting Town Judge, Eugene Velazco, his staff, or the current way he is operating the town court. This is a matter of the status of the town, the volume of town court cases, (when the court was allowed to hear cases), current country/county economics, and our need to be frugal with town funds that are generated by residential and business taxpayers.

We need to hire additional police officers, provide added Public Works services, expand fire, and police services to the south part of Merrillville as well as update existing Fire Stations in town including on the north end of Merrillville and expand services at the North Police Sub-Station. These services have a greater need than providing town court services at Town Hall. The savings from not subsidizing the operations of the town court could go toward providing other badly needed services for the town.

When there are emergency service needs, you call 9-1-1, not the town court! I hope this helps explain some of the reasons why forward-thinking leadership on the Town Council is supporting the closure of the Town Court. Current inflation predictions will be placing even more stress on governmental budgets, and we need to make tough decisions as to how we will weather the financial storm that is coming. -Rick Bella, Councilman, Ward 5 & Town Council President.  

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