The Albany City Municipal Court collected more than $1.028 million in revenue last year, a 20 percent increase over 2017 and one of several improvements noted by Judge Robert Scott in his annual report to the City Council during a Monday night work session.
Scott outlined factors he believed contributed to not just the uptick in revenue, but also the number of court filings and an increase in staff efficiency. He reported that due to an added staff position and upgraded computer system, the court was able to file more contempt of court citations, a tool he said was important in collecting fines, which accounted in part for the revenue increase. The court also handled more cases in 2018.
“The most significant item is the increase in cases over last year,” Scott said. “Last year we had a 25 percent increase and in 2018 we had another 15 percent increase, so over a two-year period that’s a huge increase.”
The increase in cases, however, came with a warning. According to Scott, the city may need to establish a city public defender’s office in the future.
“In 2018, three of the attorneys who had accepted our appointments have withdrawn from our group because they were simply too busy with Circuit Court cases,” he said. “Although I believe we will be able to recruit a defense attorney or two to handle the immediate problem, it is a problem that will not go away. As their cases increase the total cost of their services will also increase.”
The judge did caution that establishing a public defender’s office within the city could pose an issue with both defense attorneys and prosecutors being employed by the city.
That increased workload also is a reason why the court faces a deficit. In fiscal year 2018, expenditures increased, primarily caused by a $63,000 increase in payments to court-appointed attorneys. In fiscal year 2018, the court's total deficit was $75,544.
Councilor Rich Kellum asked if fines and fees could be increased to help decrease the deficit. He cited a recent case of human waste disposal on Lyon Street that resulted in a penalty of court fines for one individual but no substantial fine.
Scott apologized and told the council he took responsibility for the fine imposed in the case, saying he believed the charged couple when they told him it had been a one-time event. The couple, in fact, had actually disposed human waste in the area several times. But Scott noted the charging document had space for four charges and listed just one. When Kellum suggested charging the couple for lying to the court, Scott explained the process would have little net gain and that often, individuals come before him for not paying existing fines because they do not have the funds.
Other highlights in the judge’s report included an increased police presence in the city, the reopening of the court's customer service window on Fridays and praise for the establishment of the Court Stakeholder Committee, which allows court staff, local police personnel and the city manager to discuss issues related to the local court system.