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6-14-17

Gehrt: Giving up city court
would be financial benefit
Platte City pondering options

by Ivan Foley
Landmark publisher

A public hearing to discuss the future of Platte City’s municipal court drew only one comment from a gathering of about five members of the public in the audience.

That speaker, Jean Perry, who runs a bail bonding company in Platte City, said she is in favor of the city keeping its municipal court setup as opposed to turning the municipal court function over to the Platte County Circuit Court.

“I’m in favor of not closing up our court. It would put a load on the county court. The city would lose control and there would be no (municipal) judge to care about it,” said Perry during the public comment portion of Monday night’s public hearing held in frontof the Platte City Public Safety Subcommittee.

She said she also would hate to see the city court clerk or other city personnel lose a job over the change.

The public comment portion came after an extensive presentation by DJ Gehrt, city administrator, about the three options city leaders have with municipal court. The recent death of Greg Dorsey, the city’s longtime elected municipal court judge, has prompted the city to study the future of its court system.

Gehrt explained the operating environments for municipal courts in Missouri has changed a great deal due to a series of state legislative actions and Missouri Supreme Court rules changes over the past two years. He said changes have made it much more difficult for Platte City and other small towns to operate a separate municipal court.

The most costly and challenging changes mandated by recent state legislation include:

•Prohibition on police officers serving the court in any capacity, requiring hiring of a separate civilian bailiff

•Severe restrictions on ability of the municipal court clerk to participate in any other city business with accompanying restriction on city employees assisting with court business

•Extensive new financial and administrative reporting requirements.

•Requirement for separate court administrative facilities.

•Requirement to ensure that court offices are open a minimum of 32 hours per week.

•Requirement for municipal courts to create and maintain an online docket system, similar to the CaseNet system maintained by the circuit and district court systems.

Gehrt said the city has three options from which to choose for the future of its court. Those options are No. 1: Maintain the existing court organization, taking action to meet all the new state standards, with an elected municipal court judge as Dorsey was.

No. 2: Maintain the existing court organization, taking action to meet all the new state requirements, with an appointed municipal court judge instead of an elected one.
No. 3: Assign municipal court functions to the Platte County Circuit Court, with cases to be heard by one of the circuit/associate circuit court judges in the Platte County Courthouse.

Under Option 3, most associated costs would be the responsibility of the circuit court and therefore the money paid by defendants to cover “court costs” associated with municipal court fines would go to the circuit court. The city would still keep the money from the fines themselves, just not the “court costs” portion.

Court would be held in the county courthouse during daytime hours. The circuit court would be responsible for all court records, warrants, security, bailiff, etc.

Gehrt said as state law stands now, the circuit courts cannot say no to taking over the city’s municipal court operation if asked.

He said at some point in the future that may change. He said he would not be surprised if in the near future the courts asked the state legislature to make it more difficult for municipal court systems to give their court functions to the circuit courts.

Gehrt said the city has about 100-110 new cases each month. But about 40 of those, he said, are “compliance” tickets that go away with no financial fine if the offender takes care of the compliance “violation.” Most of the cases that end up with court activity are speeding violations, he said. Others might include things like common assault or first time DUI.

Doing away with the municipal court would actually be a financial benefit to the city, according to the city administrator.

Gehrt said that in spite of what is likely a community-wide perception, the municipal court is not a major money maker for Platte City. That is somewhat unusual, as many municipal courts are significant revenue generators for small towns.

“Option 3 has a more positive fiscal impact than Option 1 or Option 2,” Gehrt said, as the city would retain revenues from fines while circuit court has to fund most of the costs of court operations. The city anticipates a net financial benefit of Option 3 to be in the range of $55,000 to $62,000 annually, he said.

“The city would continue to receive the revenue from fines and penalties averaging $92,000 over the past three years,” Gehrt said.

He added that although circuit court would be responsible for most court operating costs, the city will continue to incur about $30,000 in court legal expenses each year. The municipal prosecutor, for instance, would still be paid by the city.

The purpose of Monday’s hearing was simply to gather input, no action was expected nor taken. Public safety subcommittee members are aldermen Debbie Kirkpatrick, Lee Stubbs and Vickie Atkins. None of the three spoke any specific opinions about the options facing the city during the public hearing.