By Sally Gillie, Monitor
The Monroe City Council will decide this month whether it wants to create a city municipal court to handle traffic infractions and criminal misdemeanors that are now under the jurisdiction of the Snohomish County Evergreen District Court. The municipal court, if approved, would have a start date of Jan. 1, 2015.
The proposal for the new court was presented to the council at its Jan. 8 meeting by Monroe Police Chief Tim Quenzer, who said such a move would save the city considerable money in filing fees which have been steadily increasing. This year, those fees paid by the city are $36.79 for each traffic infraction and $106.62 for each criminal misdemeanor. The city is currently budgeting $170,000 per year for filing fees, money that could be redirected in the city budget.
Creating a municipal court would also bring revenues to the city of about $2,500 a month in court-monitored probation costs and infraction deferred findings.
“The city’s current electronic home monitoring program has been seriously underutilized,” said Chief Quenzer.
The program is offered to qualifying offenders who serve jail time at home, wearing an electronic GPS device that monitors them for compliance. This saves the city the cost of days spent in jail and the offender pays a daily fee which is city revenue.
A city-managed court system, said Quenzer, would also allow for better screening and monitoring of indigent defendants. Currently, anyone can ask for and receive a public defender, regardless of their financial ability to pay. These cases could be better screened for compliance under state law.
Customer service would also be improved, he told the council. Due to budget cuts, the Snohomish County court system currently does not take incoming phone calls and requires court inquiries to be addressed in writing or in person. Having a phone line open to the public would better serve the city, he believes.
The proposal under consideration suggests a calendar of two court days per week, with cases being heard at the Monroe City Hall council chambers, with the city’s large conference room serving as the jury room. The council chambers are already used twice a month to hear the city’s photo-enforcement cases.
Judicial needs could likely be met with a part-time judge, an appointed position. Other staffing would include a fulltime court administrator and a part-time security officer. Existing administrative staff at the Monroe Traffic Violations Bureau would continue to process payments at the Monroe Police Department.
The court staff could be housed at the city’s former public works building or in work space at city hall, according to the proposal.
The feasibility study for the proposed court was prepared by Debra Willis, administrative director for the Monroe Police Department, and Sherri Simonson, the department’s administrative manager.
It’s estimated that the annual cost for the court would be about $166,000, which includes an annual salary for a part-time judge of $36,000, and a full-time court administrator’s salary of $96,000, including benefits, and a court clerk position that is currently funded in the city’s general fund.
Setup costs are estimated to be around $11,000, which includes office supplies and a filing system, computer, metal detector and webcam for in-jail hearings. Chief Quenzer said the costs in the proposal are estimates, and subject to change.
If the council decides to move ahead and form a new municipal court, it has until Feb. 1 of this year to terminate its current interlocal agreement with Snohomish County, Evergreen Division. That four-year agreement doesn’t expire until the end of 2014, but state law requires notification of at least a year before the end of the judicial elected terms, which expire early in 2014.
The city would then have a deadline of Dec. 1, 2014, to adopt a new ordinance establishing a city municipal court.
If formed, the city municipal court would handle all traffic infractions and criminal misdemeanors. Criminal misdemeanors are offenses that are less severe than a felony, such as petty theft, simple assault or driving while intoxicated. In 2011, there were 1,481 traffic infractions and 626 misdemeanors in Monroe.
Civil cases would still be handled by the Evergreen District Court.
Chief Quenzer answered questions from council members regarding courtroom security and the use of the city hall campus.
After discussion, the council voted 6-1 in favor of a first reading to move ahead with the termination of the city’s contract with the Snohomish County Court, Evergreen Division.
Patsy Cudaback cast the dissenting vote, but stated she was only doing so because there are a number of questions she would like to have answered before making a decision.
The council will be provided with additional information at its Jan. 15 meeting, and may take final action at that time.
Council considers basic building plans for new development
During its study session, the council took its first look at adopting a basic building plan for single family homes in new developments as a way for builders to save money in permit fees.
Under the building plan, a developer building more than one single family home with the same size and floor plan would pay a reduced plan review fee to the city. Currently, the plan review fee for each single-family home is $1,195.50; under the basic plan program, each home fee would cost $200, a savings of almost $1,000 per house.
“Those are savings that can be passed along to the buyer,” said Rick Karns, plans examiner for the City of Monroe.
Homes qualifying for the plan would have the same basic footprint, allowing for minor differences such as adding a garage bay, a flopped plan (in which the floor plan is reversed), fireplace location, bay windows, decks, assorted fixtures and roof styles.
Homes that vary with an enlarged footprint, garage door side entry or structural changes would not qualify for the basic plan. Also, the basic plan does not transfer to a different builder.
Karns said using these plans can be very useful because it expedites the permitting process while giving builders some monetary help by reducing costs in cases where similar homes are going up.
“It creates efficiency in the process that developers can count on, and it makes Monroe a more desirable place to build,” he said. Using the basic plan, he said, the turnaround time can be as short as one week. Karns said most jurisdictions offer these plans now, including Marysville and Lake Stevens.
Several council members said the plan made sense. Council member Tom Williams said he saw it as a good first step in lowering fees.
High school painting project endorsed
The council unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the Monroe School District Board to seriously consider the wishes of many high school students who want to see their hallways painted Bearcat orange and black, the school colors.
The resolution came about at the request of the city council’s new student representative, Brandon Harano, who said students are always asking why the red and blue hallways at the high school aren’t painted in the school colors.
Harano has told the council that changing the colors would be a way to promote school spirit, which would benefit not only the students but the faculty and the community. Harano’s proposal is for a student-led project, with costs covered through fundraising, volunteer labor and donations from the community.
Mayor Robert Zimmerman said that the city recognizes it is not in a position to make the final decision and the authority is with the school board. He said the newly-passed resolution is the council’s way of showing support for their student representative and the input he has received from those at the high school who would like to see the painting project happen.