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Financial Management of Municipal Court Services

Financial Management of Municipal Court Services

This article addresses the sometimes delicate relationship between municipalities and their municipal courts and how to help both branches of government best serve their common constituents. It is based upon a presentation that Marilynne Beard, Kirkland Deputy City Manager, made at a recent Court Administrator Conference.

The relationship between city governments and municipal courts is both an art and a science. The laws of Washington clearly spell out how municipal courts are formed, how and when municipal court judges are appointed or elected, and how the revenue collected by the court for fines and forfeits will be allocated between the state, county, and the municipality.

General Rule (GR) 29, issued by the Washington Supreme Court, clarifies the judges’ authority over administrative functions at the court, functions that cannot be delegated to persons in either the legislative or executive branches of government. In truth, the effective and efficient provision of judicial services to the public is a shared responsibility that relies on effective communication, collaboration, and respect for the appropriate roles of each branch of government.

Effective financial management of the court is a shared function. The governing body of the municipality is responsible for allocating the government’s general purpose resources to the many important city services provided, including the municipal court. While every city conducts a slightly different budget process, the court is required to submit a budget proposal to the chief executive officer, whether that is an elected mayor or city manager, who then presents a recommended budget to the governing body. In some cities, the judge is an elected official and may have more direct contact with the city council; however, the ultimate budget decisions still rest with the governing body.

Like all municipal functions, the court is subject to new legislation and regulations that may include unfunded mandates. Ongoing communications throughout the year between the court and the chief executive will allow the government to anticipate changes in funding needs and to reach agreement about how it will be funded and at what level.

Revenue that is collected by the court contributes to the city’s overall revenue base. The state establishes the minimum and maximum amount of fines for state offenses and the local government establishes fines for local offenses. The police department is responsible for citing offenders for violations of state and local laws. The court is responsible for adjudicating each case fairly and rendering a decision, which may include the payment of a fine and/or a related court costs. Once the judge’s decision is made, it is up to the court staff to collect the funds and distribute them based on the state’s allocation formula. For instance, from a $136 traffic infraction, only $17 goes to the local government, usually to the General or Current Expense Fund. Fines and forfeits are considered a general revenue of the government and are available for any general governmental purpose.

These are important distinctions to understand. Laws are created to protect the public. The purpose of fines and forfeits is to create disincentives for violating the law and endangering or harming the public. The police department should not be required to write tickets to raise revenue - writing tickets is to keep the community safe. Likewise, the court should not be expected to impose fines based on the city’s general revenue needs.

The fundamental concept underlying the separation of powers is that the judicial branch must be able to render decisions independently and free from interference by the legislative or executive branches. The judicial system provides for fair and impartial hearings and a system of appeals that is the proper venue for reconsideration of a judgment. It is inappropriate to question a judge’s decision, even if a resident complains to the city council about what they perceive to be an unfair decision. In its most simple terms, the executive and legislative branches cannot demand revenue generation from the court - taken to its extreme, if the court never collected a dime from fines and forfeits, the city would still need to provide general fund support for the operations of the court.

There are other important considerations about the relationship between the court and the municipality. For instance, the court may not be responsible for procuring or managing public defense or prosecution services. This presents a conflict of interest for the court and these services should be managed through the executive branch.

Rather than disagreeing over who has authority over what, elected officials, executive officials, and the court should establish a respectful and collaborative relationship between the court and all of the municipal functions supporting the court, such as finance, the city clerk, human resources, information technology, and city attorney. The court needs the support and expertise of the government and needs to abide by the central controls put in place to protect the government from misappropriation of funds and to ensure the proper accounting of funds. While GR 29 should be respected, courts would do well not to use it a means to claim exemption from best practices. Financial procedures, rules, and internal controls are put in place to protect everyone, including the public, the municipality, and the court.

If you haven’t already, start an ongoing dialogue between the court and the legislative and executive branches of government. Stay in touch and establish a relationship of cooperation and support. Everybody’s interests can be served.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Tracey Dunlap

Tracey Dunlap writes for MRSC as a gurst author.

Tracey Dunlap, P.E. is Deputy City Manager at the City of Kirkland and served as Kirkland’s Director of Finance & Administration from 2006 through 2014. Prior to joining Kirkland, she was a principal and shareholder in FCS Group, a regional financial and management consulting firm (14 years). An industrial engineer registered in the state of Washington, she has worked with jurisdictions throughout the Northwest to develop and implement cost recovery and fee strategies, set utility rates, and improve organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Tracey's experience also includes working for a large defense contractor (5 years) and a major financial institution (3 years). She has presented on a wide array of topics for organizations including WFOA, APWA, APA, WABO, and AWC.

The views expressed in guest author columns represent the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of MRSC.