By David Howell
WATER VALLEY – A decision handed down last month to merge the county’s justice court offices was revisited during the “first Monday” supervisor meeting after Justice Court Clerk Carol Wilbourn questioned potential problems created by the merger.
Wilbourn, who requested to appear on the agenda, told supervisors her phone had been ringing off the hook following the Nov. 18 vote by supervisors to move the Coffeeville and Water Valley justice court offices to the Carothers’ building, located two miles south of Water Valley.
The issue first surfaced after a minor audit finding reported the cash collection and disbursement functions are not adequately separated in the justice court offices. Simply put, the state auditors cited a potential problem because in each justice court office there is one clerk who is responsible for collecting the fine money and taking care of the necessary paperwork without any oversight.
In the Nov. 18 vote to move the offices to one location, District Five Supervisor Frank “Bubba” Tillman cast the sole dissenting vote.
“I asked for an official opinion for location and duties of the justice court clerk when there are two different (judicial) districts,” Wilbourn told supervisors on Monday.
Reading from various attorney general opinions, issued in 1989, 1991 and 2008 addressing justice court issues in counties with two judicial districts, Wilbourn argued that the county is required to have both an office and courtroom in each judicial district.
“Any county with two districts is basically two counties within a county, equal and separate,” Wilbourn explained to supervisors.
“As far as the trial of the accused, it is,” Board Attorney John Crow agreed. “But as far as the location of offices, you can have one office,” Crow continued, adding that the he had researched the issue thoroughly, going back to when the justice system was started.
Looking At Other Issues
Wilbourn also pointed to several other issues that would arise if supervisors go forward with the merger.
The first problem cited by Wilbourn was a new traffic ticket law, 63-9-21, that she said requires the ticket to be delivered to the court in which it was issued.
“I have read that, too, and I don’t see a problem there,” Crow answered, referring to the new law which took effect in July. “You only have one justice court system for the county,” Crow explained.
“That’s fine, John,” Wilbourn answered.
“Are you saying the ticket has to be returned to the place or judicial district in which the crime occurred?” Crow asked.
“Yes,” Wilbourn answered.
“No,” Crow countered.
“Well, they (tickets) are being dismissed because they are not returned to the proper place and proper court,” Wilbourn continued.
“That is another problem, isn’t it,” District One Supervisor Tommy Vaughn and District Three Supervisor M.H. “Butch” Surrette both agreed, referring to tickets that are already dismissed in justice court.
“That sounds like a county prosecuting attorney issue that she can take to the Circuit Court, if necessary, to straighten that out,” Crow answered.
“That is not only in our county,” Wilbourn replied, referring to tickets being dropped in justice court.
Wilbourn also pointed to the expense of moving the equipment and setting up the computers in the new location.
“You are talking about spending a lot of money to move an office to save money. In the long run I don’t know that you may be creating more problems,” Wilbourn added.
Another argument made by Wilbourn is that each court clerk works in their specific court district and could not handle duties from the other district if one of them was sick or on vacation. This was in response to one of the underlying reasons cited by supervisors favoring the office consolidation, which was that with two offices and two clerks, if one of the clerks were sick, the office would have to be closed.
“I want to make sure you get through, and I want to tell you some of our thinking on this thing,” District One Supervisor Tommy Vaughn responded. Vaughn has been the most vocal proponent in favor of the merger. Supervisors have discussed the issue in two previous meetings, both held during November.
“This wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. This nation and this state and this county are up against some of the hardest times we are ever going to see in our lifetimes,” Vaughn explained, adding that Wilbourn does an excellent job as court clerk.
“But we are not providing the services that we could if y’all were together,” Vaughn continued, referring to keeping the office open if one of the clerks were sick or on vacation.
Vaughn then pointed to the office space that was donated by Sean Carothers.
“There is almost 14,500 square feet of some of the best office space in the county,” Vaughn said. “In the central part of the county. I wish it would have been three miles farther down the road, it may not have been a controversy,” Vaughn added.
“For the life of me, in a county with 13.6 unemployment, 750 people…and we are arguing over something as trivial as working here or working here,” Vaughn said, referring to the two locations. “You are not losing your job, your pay is not being cut. It is not a request, it is something the board decided to do. It is not punishment, it is just the right thing to do. It is going to cost a few dollars up front,” Vaughn said.
“We got some hard decisions facing us. Not this one, this ain’t hard. But we got some coming down the pike. The governor said himself, by February we are looking at $380 million (in cuts). You don’t believe that is going to trickle down to us?” Vaughn said.
“We are trying to do what is right, and God help us I hope we do,” Vaughn concluded.
Surrette then offered input, pointing to the waning revenue that justice court produces now, compared to previous years.
“In the old days, the justice court system was a revenue stream that used to bring in money to the county,” Surrette said. “I don’t know what it is today, but I think it might be a negative. That is part of the reason for us to make this decision to try to combine and consolidate,” Surrette continued.
Vaughn backed Surrette, adding that the fine collections have decreased from $141,000 in 2006 to $85,800 in the fiscal year that ended in September.
“That is $55,000 loss in fines. Why?” asked Vaughn.
“You had six highway patrolmen in this county until two years ago, now you have one,” Wilbourn answered.
“Why?” Vaughn asked.
“I have no idea,” Wilbourn answered.
“That is the question that needs to asked because there is some conflict there that needs to be addressed,” Vaughn said, without providing specifics about the conflict.
“We need more highway patrolmen, I guess, writing citations. That is where our revenue was coming from,” Wilbourn said.
Vaughn added that the operating expenses for the justice court had increased from $138,000 to $178,000 in the same period – from 2006 to the current budget.
Pointing to the increased expenses and declining revenue, Vaughn said it was not feasible for the county to hire someone to reconcile the bank statements, another option identified by the state auditor to correct the audit finding that prompted the entire issue.
“I don’t know what to say, Carol, we are just asking you to move down the road a little bit,” Vaughn said.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Wilbourn responded.
“Well let’s go. There is already a board order. We are going to do it,” Vaughn answered. “We just want you to be there because you do an excellent job.”
“Let me ask another question, who was supposed to officially tell me? I read about it in the paper,” Wilbourn said, adding she was only across the hall when the vote to was taken.
“Carol, you knew about it five minutes after we made the motion,” Vaughn answered.
“Who was supposed to have officially told me,” Wilbourn asked again.
“I guess the supervisor you were talking to,” Vaughn answered.
“Oh no, I didn’t talk to any of y’all,” Wilbourn said. “Nobody officially told me,” she added, telling supervisors that she did hear rumors that the vote had been taken.
“Anyway, you are officially notified you are going to have to move,” Vaughn said, adding that the board was waiting for her “cool down” before they notified her of the decision.
Tillman then clarified one part of the discussion, which was that somebody needed to be hired to work in the office to correct the audit finding.
“It was other ways of doing this (correcting the audit finding) without hiring anybody. I believe you could have appointed somebody to take care of this,” Tillman said, referring to the recommendation of the state auditor to get an outside person to reconcile the bank statement.
“There was no other way to do it and keep the office open. That was the kicker, we wanted to keep the office open to serve the people of the county.”
“Both clerks have to go to certified training,” Tillman said, referring to the closing of the offices during mandatory justice court clerk training sessions.
“If they are sick or take a vacation, that is a month’s work right there. One of them will have to be closed for a month,” Vaughn countered, referring to other reasons the justice court offices have been closed when one of the clerks was out.
“I am going to always stick with the courthouses where it needs to be, but it is four more other opinions out there besides mine,” Tillman said.