• Courting disaster?

    A law meant to reduce traffic citation surcharges threatens Jackson County's Justice Court and the jobs of deputies by giving more money to the state
  • State legislators are working to amend a law Jackson County officials say has been draining funds from the county's Justice Court, jeopardizing its operation and the jobs of several county deputies.
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  • State legislators are working to amend a law Jackson County officials say has been draining funds from the county's Justice Court, jeopardizing its operation and the jobs of several county deputies.
    House Bill 2712, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2012, eliminated surcharges on traffic citations, money that helped fund the county's Justice Court operations. Additionally, the legislation increased funds paid to the state to $60 from $45 per violation while reducing the total fine.
    For example, the fine for a Class C traffic violation — the most common ticket issued — formerly was $190, with $45 paid to the state. The county retained the rest. Now the fine is $160, leaving the county with just $100.
    The financial difference has put in doubt not only the future of the Justice Court but also the jobs of the eight deputies on the county's traffic team.
    "If not changed, justice courts in most counties will go away, since there is no way county governments can afford to deficit-finance justice courts," County Administrator Danny Jordan said in an email. "Municipal courts won't be far behind."
    Under the proposed amendments, state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said the state-assessed amount could drop back down to $44 or $45.
    "Hopefully this is getting back to the structure we had before," Buckley said. "The key difference is the state was taking a larger share up front."
    Judge Joe Charter, who handles Jackson County Justice Court cases, said the reduced fines and increased state fees put a squeeze on his operations.
    "The calendar year 2012 was the worst in revenue, I think, since 2007," Charter said.
    He added the changes resulted in a predicted drop in revenue of at least $500,000 for the 2012-13 fiscal year, a difference the county would have to fund with general fund dollars. With the county already facing the possibility of layoffs, that's not likely to happen.
    Closing the Justice Court would mean the 15,000 or so annual traffic citations once handled there would move to Jackson County Circuit Court, adding to its already large caseload.
    Eliminating the eight traffic team deputy positions also would eliminate many of the traffic tickets now being written, which would reduce revenues to both the county and the state.
    County officials also fear loss of the traffic team would mean a rebound in fatal traffic crashes. The team originally was created in 2004 in response to Jackson County recording 45 traffic deaths, the second-highest number in the state. By 2007, the number had dropped to 15, according to data provided by the county.
    "If enforcement is reduced, there's going to be more people that aren't following the rules," Jordan said.
    State Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said HB 2712's original intent was to streamline how counties divvied up proceeds generated from traffic citations. If data showed the bill's passage benefited the state at the expense of the counties, he said, changes could be made.
    "We said without a track record, there's no way to know if (the county's) concerns are valid. But if there are unintended consequences, we would do everything in our power to make those corrections," Richardson said.
    Jackson County's data shows the law has led to the state's assessed portion increasing by 50 percent, officials said, while the county suffered large revenue losses.
    While it's not certain what the legislative process will entail, both Buckley and Richardson said they hope to make the changes sometime in the next few months.
    "It doesn't mean just undo everything," Richardson said. "We want to keep our promise not to be favoring the state at the expense of the counties. That will require adjustments to the way 2712 was designed and implemented. We still haven't finalized what they're going to look like."
    Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at rpfeil@mailtribune.com.
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