Camas-Washougal court likely to stay local

Agreement addresses budget constraints

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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Compromises, cutbacks and policy changes appear to have saved the Camas-Washougal Municipal Court from moving to Vancouver.

Police chiefs from both cities and officials from Clark County District Court were able to come to an agreement that would keep the court in Washougal and not break the bank.

“It met the two primary objectives we were given to negotiate with the county: try to keep the court local, if possible, and stay within our budget allowances,” Camas Chief Mitch Lackey said.

For at least the past 15 years, the cities of Washougal and Camas have contracted with Clark County District Court for Municipal Court services. Near the end of 2009, though, District Court officials notified the cities that, because of budget cuts, they could no longer afford to operate the east county court. Instead, they wanted to relocate the Municipal Court to the main courthouse in downtown Vancouver.

Lackey and Washougal Chief Ron Mitchell met with court officials to work out an agreement that would keep the court local. Through cutbacks in hours and changes to the payment system, the cities and county were able to find a solution that satisfied all parties.

“We wanted to keep court local but not at all costs,” Mitchell said. “So this is a way to keep it local, within budget, but the downside is it will be open to the public on a limited basis.”

“It’s a better alternative than driving to Vancouver,” he added.

The plan will likely go before city councils and the county commissioners for approval.

If the plan is implemented, the court would only be open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays. The court would be staffed with two people on those days and court hearings would continue to take place on Thursdays. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the court would be staffed by one person, who would be available to answer phone inquiries only. Currently, the court is open Monday through Friday and is staffed by two people, plus additional staff for court hearings.

The plan would also change how the cities pay for court services. Currently, District Court bills each of the cities filing fees based on the type of case. The current payment system makes it difficult for the cities and District Court to budget for each year and sometimes means the county doesn’t receive enough money to cover the actual costs, Lackey said.

“They lost a lot of money because the old collection system didn’t work,” he said. “They were subsidizing it.”

With the new payment system, though, the cities would pay the true costs of operating the local court, Lackey said.

The cities will take over the lease of the courthouse building and payment for utilities and supplies from the District Court. The building, at 89 C St., is leased from the Port of Camas-Washougal. The District Court will only bill the cities for the judicial and clerical staff time.

The cities will split the costs based on the percentage of case filings each city has for the year. Camas will likely pay about 60 percent to 67 percent of the costs, and Washougal will pay the rest, Lackey said. For 2010, the city of Washougal budgeted about $110,000 for municipal court services, Mitchell said. The city of Camas budgeted $204,000 for 2010, Lackey said. Both police chiefs said the reduction in services will allow the cities to stay within those budgets.

Camas is also planning to create a parking violations bureau to handle parking tickets, rather than sending all of the citations through the court process. If a person receives a parking ticket and doesn’t want to contest the citation, he or she would go to City Hall and pay the ticket. If he or she chooses to contest the ticket, then the citation would be filed with the court and go through the court process, Lackey said.

City officials hope to have the changes go into effect in June.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546 or marissa.harshman@columbian.com.