A proposed expansion to the county courthouse, to be funded by the state to the tune of $8.5 million, has Washington County Sheriff Donnie Smith voicing sharp opposition to the project. "I keep hearing that the state is broke," he says. "When I ask legislators, they say it's different. It's judicial money. Well, it's still money. When taxpayers pay, they don't get to choose [where it goes]. At the end of the day it's all coming from the same place: taxpayer money."
Smith would rather see the funding help people stay out of the system in the first place through the allocation of monies to help with substance abuse and mental illness, two factors he sees as significant contributors to the reason why people are in the county's jail.
The courthouse was built between 1853 and 1855. The expansion is part of a statewide plan begun in 2001 to upgrade the counties' courthouses to meet a number of needs, including security and information technology. In her annual State of the Judiciary reports to the legislature, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court has stressed the importance of securing the courthouses, meeting the public need for online access to judicial information including trial dates, amounts of fines owed and case documents, and providing employer record checks for job applicants.
County Manager Betsy Fitzgerald notes that the state has taken two paths for courthouse renovations, either 20% expansion and 80% renovation or the opposite. The Machias courthouse would be the 80% expansion and 20% renovation model, with a large building to go up at the back of the existing structure. No date has been set for the expansion's start date. At a recent county commissioner's meeting, commission Chair Chris Gardner cautioned the need to research long‑term costs and maintenance that would be borne by the county before signing on to the project. Fitzgerald says, "The commissioners have been very clear to me that the county not absorb huge increased costs."
Smith says that rather than tackle the difficult work of substance abuse and mental illness, building an expansion is "feel good money." He was recently at a conference where he notes that the Department of Homeland Security took a five‑hour block of time to talk about mental health issues and the need to address them through appropriate funding. "I'd much rather see that $8.5 million spent on helping with those issues."
Counting court days and judge time
The sheriff contends that the county's courthouse is underutilized, with court rooms empty for a good part of the time, in particular the superior court, despite a docket backlog that he says in one case meant that a young man "with mental health issues was held for six months" in jail. "He had spent all that time in jail waiting to get ordered by the judge to go to an institution. During that time he deteriorated." Smith says that a building expansion could be built at any time, but first "let's get the judge here, then move the docket, then see how it goes and if a bigger space is warranted."
In her 2012 report to the legislature Saufley states, "You know that the judicial branch baseline budget does not provide sufficient funding for the full caseload to be addressed in a safe, timely and efficient manner." She goes on to write that rather than dwelling "on what we cannot do," she will report on what is being accomplished.
In response to the sheriff's statement that the courts are underutilized, in particular by the superior court, Mary Ann Lynch, government and media counsel of the Administrative Office of the Courts, Maine Judicial Branch, says, "It's not just about the number of court days."
Lynch summarizes information tracked by the state, observing, "In terms of case numbers, the scheduling appears to be a reasonable allocation of judicial resources, i.e., judge time. With Washington County having 432 superior court matter cases in fiscal year 2012 out of 32,902 statewide -- superior and UCD [Unified Criminal Docket] -- the scheduling looks reasonable to me. After all, we have only 17 superior court justices for the entire state. From the district court perspective, between the judge and the family law magistrate, we average two to four days per week in Machias. The other days are generally in Calais. The district court has two full-time judges in Region 8 [Aroostook], and two full-time judges in Region 7 [Hancock and Washington]." She notes that in order to have a balanced comparison between counties, Washington and Hancock counties need to be combined to meet the next lowest populated county of Aroostook. She adds, "The number of days the district court uses Machias does vary throughout the month. Some weeks we are using it all five days, and others we are using it only two days. It would be safe to say, however, that some court event is occurring at the average of two to four days per week."
County Manager Fitzgerald says, "The sheriff is focused on the part of the courthouse that directly affects his operations. I would expect nothing less." However, she says, whether the superior court meets enough or the courthouse is underutilized, "it depends on who you talk to. If you talk to the DA [district attorney] they have one answer. A court person might have another."
In Saufley's 2011 report to the legislature she notes, "Unfortunately, the challenges of understaffing have taken their toll on the public. The bottom line is that a limited number of staff, and judges simply cannot do all the work that is generated. ... We have had to set priorities, slow the response to non‑priority cases, and even reduce access at certain times."
Potential benefits beyond more courtrooms
As county manager, Fitzgerald needs to look at the expansion from a number of different perspectives. She explains, "From my side of the driveway the picture is different." The expansion is adding two more courtrooms, but also "there are other issues" that are being addressed. Separate circulation zones will be created for the public, jurors, staff and prisoners. "Right now when a prisoner is brought to the courtroom, there are multiple ways that there could be an impact." For those days that screening is needed, she notes that there will be one entrance for the public to use when entering the building.
Office and court space will be reconfigured. "Deeds will get a new space," Fitzgerald says. "One of the things we're finding is that the state has made changes in processes that we have to adapt to. Much of deed research is online now, so to facilitate these processes we need to build IT [information technology] stuff."
In addition, parking would be improved. "When we have 100 jurors called in it's horrible. Thank goodness no one gives out parking tickets." Nearby space owned by the county would be used for additional parking. Also, Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) issues will be solved.
However, Smith says, "Is there inconvenience? Yes. When the district court is in, yes, it's inconvenient. Is it crowded? Yes. Parking a nightmare? Yes. But you know what? It's an inconvenience, that's all."