Mayor Ron Littlefield rankled city judges, the County Commission and the City Council in December when he proposed moving City Court out of the city-county courts building and into a city-owned space to save money.
The spat escalated in early February when the administration began talking about eliminating one or both city judge positions. City Judge Russell Bean called the proposal a “vendetta” over last year’s Pet Company case.
But since then, the subject hasn’t come up. Last week the mayor’s spokesman, Richard Beeland, said the city has no specific plans and that Littlefield simply is exploring the idea of a move.
Littlefield initially said the city could save $50,000 to $100,000 a year by moving City Court out of the courts building on Market Street.
He spoke about moving the court to the former Tennessee American Water building at 10th and Lindsay streets. City crews were at work in the building early in the year, but Beeland said last week that they were only doing routine maintenance.
Littlefield didn’t specify how the savings would be achieved. Beeland said last week most of the savings would come from not having to lease space in the city-county courts building. He said the court clerk’s staff could move into the finance office and that some of the 14 clerk staff jobs could be eliminated for additional savings.
But those savings still would amount to less than 6 percent of City Court’s annual $1.6 million operating cost. If City Court was shut down, the city still would have to pay Bean and City Judge Sherry Paty their $154,000-a-year salaries until their terms end.
The proposed move has drawn criticism from the Hamilton County Commission and seems to lack support from the City Council, which likely would have a say over where the courts operate.
“I know the mayor’s motive to move it [City Court] is to save money, but I don’t think with as much as you’d save it would be worth it to inconvenience people,” said City Council Chairman Manny Rico.
County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said the city’s courthouse lease is just a few thousand dollars a year less than the county pays the city to use the Development Resource Center on Market Street.
“Really, it’s almost a washout,” he said. “I don’t think what the mayor is proposing would be a good idea for taxpayers.”
PAYING ITS WAY
Chattanooga City Court handles mostly traffic offenses, zoning-related complaints and other minor offenses.
Though the largest fine City Court judges can issue is $50, city records show Chattanooga’s courts collected an average of $2.8 million a year for the last three years after paying for operating costs and salaries.
Critics say a move or elimination would create more problems than it would solve.
Paty and Bean met with the council Feb. 1 to oppose the mayor’s suggested move. They said the Tennessee American building is too small and has security shortcomings.
City Court dockets vary, Paty said, but this month, one day’s worth of hearings had more than 70 people in the court. The designated courtroom space in the Tennessee American building can hold about 45 people, Paty said.
“We would not be able to operate if we had more than 45 people [in court],” she said.
Rico said he thinks the City Charter gives the council the authority to decide the use of city buildings. The council has not talked about any move since meeting with the judges, he said.
“It’s kind of a one-stop shop there,” Rico said. “Right now we’ve got bigger battles to fight.”
Aaron Conklin, assistant general counsel for the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts, said a municipal court could hand over duties to state courts in a couple of ways.
Police would have to use state law in citations and arrests rather than city ordinances, sending offenders to state court. But ordinances not covered by state law would lack a court to enforce local laws, Conklin said.
Another option would be an interlocal agreement in which the city gave the county authority to take on municipal court duties.
State law forbids changing judges’ salaries during their terms, so there would be no extra compensation for Sessions Court judges. However, the city could pay the county for performing the duties, Conklin said.
Since Bean’s and Paty’s terms don’t end until 2014, if City Court was dissolved in that time, they still would be owed their salaries, Conklin said.
Beeland said specifics of the plan haven’t been discussed. But he said Littlefield is looking at options to move, reduce or eliminate city courts.
“Some of the options have other obstacles,” he said. “Just because they require additional steps to take doesn’t negate the need for talking about them.”
Staff writer Dan Whisenhunt contributed to this story.
Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...