Stow -- Financially and operationally, officials at the Stow Municipal Court say the facility is running better than ever.
The court has come a long way since officially relocating from its original host city in Cuyahoga Falls to Stow in January 2009 -- something veteran Judge Kim Hoover, a Cuyahoga Falls native, said has never happened before in Ohio. The move was made, he said, to accommodate an expansion and to address a shift in jurisdiction populations by having the court more geographically centralized between the 16 Summit County communities it serves.
Hoover said the court is enjoying record efficiency and profits, emphasizing how the $9.5 million facility is already paid ahead on its building debt, which features a $40,000 monthly mortgage payment, through the spring of 2017. He said there is about $6.2 million left to pay off.
The court's first year of operation in Stow in 2009 was marred by a $1 million deficit that the city had to help partially pick up -- something that caused concern for Stow officials who began to fear for a debt-laden facility. The court was also thousands behind in its own anticipated revenues at the time.
"Everyone was in panic then, saying, 'Oh my God, this is going to cost us a fortune,"' Hoover recounted. "People like [Stow Mayor and former Councilperson] Sara Drew hung tough and said, 'Let's give it some time to see how it works out."'
By 2010, the court had broke even -- overall finances had begun to level out, but revenues were still lower than hoped.
The last two years, though, have been particularly prosperous for the court system, which Hoover attributes to conservative spending, efficient operations and new and creative ways of increasing revenue that ultimately help bolster Stow's municipal finances as well.
While the court was not necessarily designed to be profitable, it's becoming that way. By 2011, for example, Hoover said Stow received a roughly $170,000 bonus from the court.
"We have really built a good rapport and good working relations with the court, and I'm grateful for that. It's certainly been very beneficial for the city," said Drew, lauding the efforts of Hoover and former Clerk of Courts Lisa Zeno Carano. "We're very pleased with the cost-control measures both on the judges' sides and the clerks' sides."
BENEFITING ITSELF, THE CITY AND CHARITIES
In addition to the benefits of volunteer work, the court also uses offenders’ community-service time to offset costs and even help the needy.
A bulk of custodial services in the court, for example, are done by offenders, while volunteers help with traffic court by escorting people between the judge and clerk offices.
Volunteer work likely saves the court about $100,000 annually, Hoover said.
The court also has its own gardens where ornamental flowers are grown for the court, and vegetables like radishes, tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers are grown on court property and donated to charity.
Hoover said he’s excited to note those gardens are even expanding this year to include an additional site for potatoes.
All the produce — for which seedlings are prepped through fall and winter in Hoover’s basement with grow lights seized from former drug offenders — is then given to the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank, the Battered Women’s Shelter of Summit and Medina Counties and Good Neighbors Inc.
This year, Hoover said it’s the court’s goal to “push, push, push” the further advancement of technology. He said he wants the court’s collection of paper records entirely digitized, for example.
“When you no longer have to have someone sorting through a stack of files, that saves so much money and so much manpower,” he said.
He referenced one downstairs room filled with files, which he said is “just crazy.” He noted the seedling-grow operation for the court’s gardens could be moved there it were empty.
“All those files should be digitized and they should be in the cloud, or on a disc if nothing else,” he said. “There has to be some technology that works besides big cardboard boxes that can mold, burn and fall apart anyway.”
REALIZING FINANCIAL STABILITY
Hoover said the court has been cutting expenses since 2010, trimming overall costs through the years by a half-million and raising revenue by almost as much.
"They've streamlined their operating budget and controlled costs, and that's something we've had to do in the city as well," said Drew. "The operations side of their budget has turned around tremendously, and a lot of that has to do with the diligence of the elected officers at the court."
In terms of efficiency, the court's staff has been reduced by 20 percent, Hoover said. Between the judge and clerk offices, the court has approximately 43 employees.
The new location in Stow also provides physical growth and an expansion in services the former Cuyahoga Falls location couldn't provide, Hoover added.
For example, Hoover said, the court no longer contracts out for ankle monitors.
"We're big enough now that we can own our own house-arrest equipment, have our own people staff it, and that's producing a profit to us of probably $4,000 to $5,000 a week that was just being lost before," Hoover said.
The court also receives money for offering part of the mandatory classes given to first-time OVI offenders, which hadn't been offered before the court came to Stow.
"Our financial system has worked better than anybody ever dreamed," Hoover said.
In one more controversial move, the court now charges a $10 special-projects fee to offenders the court serves -- other courts may charge only $2. Hoover said those entities are "underestimating" what they should charge.
Those funds are often used for a court to pay for its own improvements, he said.
"By doing this, we're raising millions," Hoover said. "The taxpayers don't have to pay it unless they're users of the court. It might not seem fair that if you get an OVI, you're paying for the court. Your neighbor, though, who didn't get an OVI, is not paying.
"If you want to break the law, it's better you pay for it then the little old lady who lives on Arndale [Road] and never gets in trouble," he added.
Hoover said he caught plenty of flak for that decision, but said other judges across the state are now considering following his lead.
While the court's budding financial and operational success benefits the city coffers directly, Drew noted there are various ancillary benefits the court brings, such as economic development.
"For the city of Stow to have the court in its borders brings people to our city who might otherwise not be here," she said, adding that the area around Courthouse Boulevard that now features stores, restaurants and officers has developed significantly around the court's presence.
Drew said the court has transitioned well through the years and has already become a smart investment paying strong dividends to the city.
"And that's all you can ever really ask for out of a partnership," Drew said.
Phone: 330-541-9400, ext. 4179