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Berkley, Royal Oak

January 16, 2013

Berkley to combine court with Royal Oak, not Oak Park

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

BERKLEY/ROYAL OAK — Berkley just merged its district court with Oak Park’s last summer, but recently adopted state legislation will essentially negate that process and lead to a new merger with Royal Oak.

On Jan. 9, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed Public Act 624 of 2012 into law, allowing Berkley and Royal Oak to move forward with the consolidation, effective Jan. 3, 2015. It will also reduce the collective number of judges in the two courts from three to two via attrition. The new law was sponsored by state Sen. John Pappageorge, R-Troy, and passed by the state Legislature during the lame-duck session at the end of the year.

“The consensus among the people that I met with is that it makes a lot more sense for the Berkley court to combine with the Royal Oak court than with the Oak Park court. By far, the best court building in this area is the one in Royal Oak, so we figured that it would be better for Berkley to consolidate there, rather than with a city (Oak Park) that needs a new court building. We decided to wait until 2015 because we didn’t want these (incumbent) judges to have to run for re-election in communities that they do not currently represent,” Pappageorge said.

Under Public Act 624, Berkley’s court will once again become the 45-A District Court for the next two years, serving only cases within city borders, and Oak Park’s court will return to the 45-B District Court. It reversed the changes enacted by Public Act 37 of 2012, which was approved by Snyder last February. Public Act 37 abolished the “A” and “B” court designations and united the two facilities as branches of the new 45th District Court beginning July 1, 2012.

Berkley District Court Judge Jamie Wittenberg is supportive of the new law.

“I think that for the citizens of Berkley and Royal Oak, this legislation is a better change than the previous one,” he said. “Now we will have two years to prepare for consolidation, which is a lot better than the old legislation, which I think may have been a little too rushed. My first preference would have been to allow Berkley to maintain its own district court, but I can’t argue with the numbers.”

Wittenberg is also excited about the prospect of moving into the 44th District Court building in Royal Oak, a change that likely will not happen until 2020 or later.

“This legislation will eventually result in a huge benefit for Berkley by giving us a nice new district court,” he said. “Royal Oak has a beautiful court building with great facilities, and our current building is old and out of date and needs to be replaced soon. So this new legislation makes perfect sense, in that it allows us to move into a bigger, newer building that actually has room for us.”

Still, Berkley City Manager Jane Bais-DiSessa noted that Berkley will lose significant annual revenue by combining court buildings with Royal Oak, rather than maintaining separate buildings. She estimated that, during the first year alone, the merger will result in $200,000 to $300,000 in revenue losses because a portion of the funds generated by court fees and fines will go to Royal Oak instead of Berkley. It will also create greater expenses for Berkley, which will have to cover the costs of additional overtime pay for its public safety officers, transportation of prisoners to and from the court, and unemployment payments for any laid-off court employees.

“The good news is that we will have at least the next two years to sit down and plan out this consolidation with the city of Royal Oak,” Bais-DiSessa said. “Our district court does very well financially — it brings in $900,000 to $1 million in additional revenue every year for us — but the state feels that our caseload is too small for the court to stand on its own. I fought very hard with them to leave our district court alone, but things just didn’t work out that way.”

With its 2011 Judicial Re-sources Recommendations, the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) advised the elimination of 45 of Michigan’s 584 district court judgeships, as well as four Court of Appeals judgeships, which would amount to savings of about $8 million per year for the state. Locally, the report indicated that the Berkley 45-A District Court and the 44th District Court in Royal Oak can operate at full capacity with only two judges between them, rather than the three that they currently have.

The SCAO’s statistics show that the Berkley and Royal Oak courts each have an excess of 0.6 judges. These numbers also show that, in recent years, the two courts have seen significant decreases in both the number of case filings they receive and the population of the communities they serve.

Royal Oak was originally set to merge with the three 43rd District Court branches in Ferndale, Hazel Park and Madison Heights, which each have one judge and a combined judicial excess of 0.5. However, in the fall of 2011, those three cities successfully lobbied against the proposed consolidation, arguing that the state was attempting to reduce its own expenses, while causing significant cost increases to the local municipalities.

Although that proposed court merger has now been passed along to Berkley, Pappageorge insisted that these changes are not intended to punish Michigan cities in any way.

“Yes, this will take away some revenue from Berkley, but it will not cost them a lot of money to make this consolidation,” he said. “The first choice for everyone involved was to keep everything the same, but that just was not an option — we had to follow (the SCAO’s) recommendations. People also need to remember that a lot could happen between now and 2020, and this law does not preclude us from revisiting the issue and making some changes.”

Wittenberg noted that the court building merger between Royal Oak and Berkley will likely occur in 2020 because, if all the incumbent judges are re-elected in 2014, then Judge Terrence Brennan in Royal Oak would “age out” of his position and be forced to retire six years later, thereby eliminating one judgeship through attrition.

“Ultimately, I feel like this is a win-win financially and logistically for both cities,” he said. “It will certainly be more difficult for me politically, because I’ll be merging into a new area that will make up 73 percent of the jurisdiction, but it’s definitely a better overall option for everyone.”

Bais-DiSessa pointed out another key benefit of the merger. A factor that could make the process easier for both Berkley and Royal Oak, she said, is that the two cities have a long and robust history of working together through organizations like the Woodward 5 and the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority, as well as their shared animal-control services.

“We have a very good working relationship with the city of Royal Oak, but we really don’t have as strong of a rapport with the city of Oak Park,” she explained. “Over the past year, we just couldn’t come up with an agreement with them, in terms of what to do with our court buildings, our judges and our court staff. They wanted us to move in there literally right away, but we weren’t ready to do that. So I think that, all in all, this new plan is for the best.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.