MOUNT VERNON — Highlighting problems with the building housing the Mount Vernon Municipal Court, Judge John Thatcher said it is time to consider a countywide property tax to fund a new court building.
Speaking during city council's Streets and Public Buildings Committee meeting on Monday, Thatcher said the building is not ADA compliant, has no fire suppression system, and has HVAC problems. Additionally, there is no fire alarm system that notifies of a fire when the building is vacant.
Municipal court, located in the Plaza Building at 5 N. Gay St., is a city-funded court with countywide jurisdiction. It handles all misdemeanors, evictions, and civil cases from $15,000 and under and serves as the county's small claims court. It is its own legal entity.
The court has a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) that specifies what will happen should something disrupt the court's normal operations. Thatcher said that last summer when the jury room had no air conditioning, had a jury trial been scheduled, he would have had to implement the COOP and hold the trial in City Hall chambers if it was for a day or two.
The Knox County Common Pleas Court is also an alternative location if it is available.
“But if, as this summer, the maintenance people could not cobble the AC system back together, we might have to leave 5 N. Gay St. for a longer period of time,” Thatcher told council. “I was told over the summer that our HVAC system at 5 N. Gay St. doesn't have too many more years left.
“That started me to thinking that I better not just think about a fire or a tornado or building collapse as the only possible reasons why we would have to vacate long term. That could be one of the reasons … not having any air conditioning,” he continued. “If you've ever been in there, you can't open the windows. It gets up to 75 degrees in the jury room, and we cannot ask people to come and do jury duty in a courtroom that is unairconditioned in the summertime.”
According to the COOP, the alternative long-term site was the water department. Thatcher said that after touring the building, he discovered that it was not suitable. He upgraded the COOP to show The Station Break as the new long-term location.
“In the event that I have to implement the COOP and vacate 5 N. Gay St. for any length of time, I'm going to be coming back to council … because I have to be back up and running quickly. I can't postpone court because we can't occupy the courtroom because the air conditioning does not work or any other reason,” he said.
Thatcher noted that several members of the city's administration, along with police, fire, EMS and county law enforcement, attend an annual court security meeting.
“Every year for the last 7 ½ years that I've participated in these meetings, there's been discussion of the condition of the building and in particular the structural integrity of the building,” he said. “So there's been discussion on and off about potentially relocating the municipal court to a different site and building a new building or rehabbing an old one. Obviously, that's not an inexpensive thing to consider.”
Thatcher asked attorney Rebecca Princehorn of Bricker & Eckler to research financing options for a new municipal court building. He told council there ought to be serious consideration given to the fact that there's legal authority in Ohio for the county commissioners to put a levy on the ballot to fund a building through property taxes.
“It would still be city-funded as far as operating expenses are concerned, but because it is a county building, it is not necessarily true that the city has to pay 100% of of the expenses of a new municipal court building,” he said.
Juvenile/Probate Judge Jay Nixon and Common Pleas Judge Richard Wetzel support Thatcher's request for a new building.
“In a nutshell, this is basically the judicial branch in Knox County coming out in support of the idea of having a suitable building for the Mount Vernon Municipal Court where there are no concerns about any kind of lengthy disruption in the administration of justice at the municipal court level,” Thatcher said.
Since 1986, the court has seen 8,000 to 10,000 cases a year. Noting that in 2020-21 cases decreased due to COVID, Thatcher said those numbers will go back up again.
Last year, 22,000 people passed through the security check on the third floor of the Plaza Building, 7,000 of them individuals checking in with their probation officer.
“It's easy to forget how busy we are up on the third floor of the Plaza Building because it doesn't seem like a very visible public building like the common pleas court is, but I'd venture to say that we're probably busier, have more cases, see more people than the common pleas court does in a typical year,” he said.
Thatcher said he will meet with the county commissioners to discuss the option of having the county fund a new municipal court building, something Thatcher said would require cooperation among the legislative branches of government in the county.
“As you all know, you hold the purse strings,” he told council. “The judicial branch in some ways is the weaker of the three because we don't have the power of the purse like the city council and county commissioners do, and this is a money issue.”
Thatcher said he strongly encourages the city to have a civil engineer evaluate the Plaza Building to make sure that it is structurally safe to occupy.
“If it is, does it need repairs? If it needs repairs, what are the costs to repair the building so it is what it should be?” he asked. “Factor that into your consideration of how much more money do you want to put into that building.
“Start with a civil engineer's report, because I think we owe it to the public to make it safe.”
The new council picked up the employee compensation issue unresolved by the previous council, giving a first reading to an ordinance setting the salary for supervisory personnel. Council gave a first reading to a separate ordinance setting the hourly rates for non-bargaining unit city employees.
Law Director Rob Broeren said that due to positions being added or carved out, council previously considered a number of positions as separate pieces of legislation.
“The piece presented to council puts it all together,” he said. “There's no more having to go through multiple pieces of legislation. It's all there in one place.”
Broeren noted that both ordinances add longevity increases for years six through 11.
“It adds value to those people who have been here and incentivizes them hopefully to stay,” he said.
City Treasurer David Stuller said that while income tax revenue from business profits declined in 2021-21 due to COVID, withholding tax income remained steady from 2018-2021.
Noting that withholding taxes are the city's “bread and butter,” he said, “I think they are going to be stable going forward.”
Regarding questions about whether a 3% raise for city personnel is reasonable, Stuller pointed out that his gas bill rose 66%, gasoline 55%, and electric 25%.
“Is 3% reasonable? The cost of living has gone up quite a bit,” he told council.
City Auditor Terry Scott said the money is there to support the 3% raises, which total $250,533. Of the $250,533, $191,000 comes from the general fund; other major funds such as streets, cemetery, and water/wastewater/stormwater support the remaining $59,533. Each of the funds has a carryover balance; the 2022 budget appropriations will be added to the carryover.
Prior to council's action on the two compensation ordinances, Council member Amber Keener encouraged council to move forward on the legislation.
“We should not need to take two more weeks to review information we've had for weeks and weeks,” she said. “We had Terry give us the numbers, and we trust what he presents us with. This is eight months of this sitting in front of us … these are our workers providing water and wastewater, and services for our people, and clearing our roads. This needs to go through.”
Councilman John Francis, chair of the Employee and Community Relations Committee, gave both ordinances a first reading so that council members have time to look over the information presented and collate it with the budget packet council will receive.
“It gives each person — we have new members on council — it gives each person time to contact whoever they want to talk to,” he said. “It's just a matter of everybody taking that chance to get all of the information they can.”
Council will discuss both ordinances in a committee meeting at the Jan. 24 meeting.
Council took the following additional actions:
•Passed as an emergency legislation relating to the distribution of the countywide lodging tax for 2022-23. Distribution entities and percentages remain unchanged:
- Foundation Park Conservancy 5%
- Knox County Convention & Visitor's Bureau 20%
- Main Street Mount Vernon 30%
- Mount Vernon Parking Company 10%
- Woodward Opera House 20%
- City of Mount Vernon 5%
- Petition fund 10%
•Gave a first reading to legislation rezoning 210 N. Sandusky St. from neighborhood commercial to general business. Council will hold a public hearing at its Jan. 24 meeting.
Knox Pages reporter Cheryl Splain presented a Citizens Agenda to council. The agenda stems from Knox Pages' “Talk the Vote” event in October 2021 and lists the concerns voters identified as being priorities for council in 2022.
Council also held an organizational meeting setting forth the guidelines for procedures, meetings, and committee assignments for 2022.