2017 Budget: Municipal Court seeks part-time judge to handle growing caseload

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By Martin Kidston

Missoula Municipal Court on Wednesday asked the City Council to fund a part-time assistant judge for the next fiscal year, saying the position was needed to keep up with caseload and help conduct pre-trial monitoring.

Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks called the assistant position a temporary solution to a bigger problem. The part-time judge would enable the court to maintain its current level of service until the city finds a long-term solution addressing Municipal Court’s lack of space and staffing needs.

“At some point in the future, Missoula needs to have another full-time elected judge,” said Jenks. “It’s something the City Council is going to need to address at some point in time.”

Currently, the court employs 1.85 judges, along with a staff that includes a court administrator, five court clerks, three judge clerks, a compliance clerk, a legal secretary and a file clerk.

The new part-time judge would cost $63,476, according to a draft of the city’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget. The figure includes a salary of $42,388, along with other costs associated with benefits, furniture, and computer and software licenses.

“This proposal today is a stop-gap proposal to get the court through until you’re ready to take that next step,” said Jenks. “With that next step, we’ll require another courtroom. We’re really crowded in Municipal Court. The clerks are on top of each other and we only have two courtrooms.”

Jenks said Missoula Municipal Court has the largest case volume in the state. It processes roughly 18,000 cases a year.

So far this year, Jenks said, the court has handled more than 10,300 cases, including 3,211 criminal cases and nearly 7,000 ticketed offenses, such as drunk driving and ordinance violations. The court also handles roughly 80 percent off all restraining orders issued locally, Jenks said.

“There’s a ton of work a new judge could do that would be very helpful to the court,” Jenks said.

The 2017 budget proposed by Mayor John Engen includes the new part-time assistant judge. The position would be covered by fines and fees, leaving no net impact to the city’s General Fund, according to the budget proposal.

Still, the City Council has “tickled” the mayor’s request, meaning it may consider keeping or removing the item from the budget.

“The part time position is funded in the mayor’s budget,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “Right now, it would take an action to take it out of the budget.”

The council must also consider requests made by other city departments. Last week, the Missoula Police Department presented its request for four new positions, including two additional sworn officers. Other proposed positions include staffing for Parks and Recreation, as well as Development Services.

Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the mayor’s administration is currently updating the city’s master plan, one that will take a 20-year view of space needs and staffing. Municipal Court will be part of that, Bickell said.

“When Jenks put the request in this year for a half-time assistant judge, we discussed the debate that happened last budget year related to a new elected (judge),” Bickell said. “We acknowledged we’ll have that need.

“This fall, we’ll update our space-needs master plan,” he added. “As part of it, we’ll update the Municipal Court side of it to understand the needs associated with space and staff. We’ll be able to prioritize the areas.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com