Meting out justice in Vanderburgh County Superior and Circuit courts costs local taxpayers about $7 million annually — but it’s not just pay and benefits for 100-plus employees. It’s also hundreds of much smaller expenditures that keep the courts system humming on the ground level, where probation officers, bailiffs, court reporters and other workers perform tasks outside the spotlight of a courtroom.

It’s $12.18 to buy straws for drug tests and $11.75 for sterile gloves for the same testing. It’s $93.50 for a battery for a court transport car. Eleven bucks and 34 cents to pay for lunch during a trip to Owensboro, Kentucky, to pick up a runaway juvenile.

Those are among reimbursements to Superior and Circuit Court employees from 2013 to 2015 the Courier & Press obtained via Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act. The reimbursements do not reflect the state’s contributions to judicial operations, among which are the vast majority of Circuit and Superior court judges’ $137,062 salaries. The county kicks in $5,000 for each of the systems’ eight judges.

“All the activities that take place in this building, from buying toner and paper for printers to paying salaries for court staff— my court reporter, my bailiff — all paid by the county,” said Superior Court Judge Wayne Trockman.

A portion of local taxpayers’ expenses for court operations are paid in reimbursement for the costs of judges and magistrates attending judicial conferences typically held in Indianapolis, French Lick or Fort Wayne. Trockman said the Indiana Judicial Center, a state agency, pays most of the expenses — lodging, mileage at a government rate, a per diem of $26 a day for meals — for the fall judicial conference, for which attendance is required. The rest is paid out of the taxpayer funded travel budget for Trockman’s court.

But attendance at the spring conference is not required, so the state doesn’t ante up. If a judge wants to attend — Trockman said he will this year — travel and hotel costs are borne by county taxpayers. Superior Court Judge Robert Pigman’s reimbursement for accommodations for three nights at the 2013 spring judicial conference in Indianapolis came in at $325.

Many courts-related expenses to taxpayers are incurred behind the scenes — in some cases, far behind the scenes.

Among the items budgeted for Superior Court last year were $2,500 for “pauper transcripts,” copies of court hearing transcripts for inmates seeking to challenge their convictions. But that money was not spent. This year, $1,000 is budgeted. Another $44,000 was spent last year for law books, which are updated annually as statutes change and new case law is created. This year, $42,000 is budgeted.

With 62 full-time and 11 part-time employees — not including judges, who are state employees — Superior Court is larger than any agency of county government. The county spent nearly $6 million in payroll and property tax proceeds on total Superior Court operations last year.

Circuit Court, with 22 full-time employees funded by local tax dollars, is a much smaller operation. A relatively small $1,500 went for travel, with other expenses including $12,000 for psychological evaluations and $49,400 for law books.

One expense was $9,490 for food for juries. The amount spent in 2013 was $11,600. The corresponding figure in 2014 was $10,110. This year, $10,000 is budgeted.

Vanderburgh County Circuit Court spent nearly $1.3 million in all last year from tax proceeds.

A shift?

The 2014 Indiana Judicial Service Report, issued in October by the Supreme Court, pegged the total cost to operate Indiana’s court system at slightly more than $459.5 million. Totals for 2015 are not yet available.

The state’s share  was almost $141.5 million, while counties spent almost $299 million. The court system also generated $173.6 million in revenue for state and local governments.

Noting those return revenues and the use of grants and user fees to pay some expenses, Vanderburgh Circuit Judge David Kiely said it is appropriate that county government shoulder the bulk of the load.

“We do handle legal issues that arise within Vanderburgh County,” Kiely said, ticking off a lengthy list that included serious crimes, traffic tickets, property and commercial transactions and adoption, child support and probate matters.

“I think (Vanderburgh County budget-writers) give us what they can,” the judge said.

Kiely added that in other counties where judicial officers and elected officials may not have such good relationships, another idea has taken hold in recent years. A raft of judicial and academic studies have explored the idea of shifting the state’s trial courts from local to state funding.

Randall T. Shepard, who served as chief justice of the Indiana Supreme Court from 1987 until 2012, said one issue is “the ability and willingness of local counties to appropriate funds.”

“On protection of abused and neglected children, for example, Evansville had one of the first CASA (court appointed special advocates) programs in Indiana,” Shepard wrote by email last week. “Child advocates, the county government, and local charities were willing to finance it. At least early on, that didn’t occur in most places, so children in distress often didn’t have someone to speak for their interests.”

Counties also have provided various levels of publicly funded public defense for poor people charged with crimes, Shepard wrote. They have shown great interest in adopting modern court technology in some cases — and not-so-great interest in others.

Shepard, a former Vanderburgh County Superior Court judge, praised the General Assembly for committing tens of millions of dollars, at the judiciary’s request, to such initiatives.

Taking it all the way — total state funding of courts — would not add all that much, percentagewise, to the state’s entire budget, Shepard wrote. But it wouldn’t be that easy.

“The total of the judicial system’s expenses is equivalent to just 1 or 2 percent of the state’s biennial budget, and a substantial part of those expenses are offset by filing fees and the like,” he wrote.

“Still, jumping all the way to full state financing in one leap isn’t any easier in this field than it would be to make substantial, quick shifts anywhere else. What I expect is that the Legislature will decide over time to cover various elements of court operations where it’s apparent that a respectable commitment can produce some demonstrable improvements.”

The effect of such a funding shift on local taxpayers would be difficult to calculate in advance.

They would still contribute to statewide court operations through income and sales taxes, with no guarantee that local property taxes would drop. Vanderburgh County government would no longer be obligated to provide roughly $7 million for local court operations, but county budget writers also would have no shortage of demands for the newly available money.

James Raben, the County Council’s longtime finance chairman, said council members likely would want to spend some of the theoretical $7 million windfall on badly needed road projects — but not all of it.

“It would be nice to have the freedom to take on and do some additional projects, but I would say ‘shame on us’ if we have an opportunity to scale it back and we don’t,” Raben said.

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