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County seeks ways to keep courts afloat

With a slowdown in residential construction and home sales, Clark County is headed toward a budget crisis that already has administrators scrambling to find funding for public facilities, including its overwhelmed court system.

The county’s consolidated tax revenue, generated largely from sales taxes, makes up 45 percent of its $1.37 billion general fund budget.

Clark County Finance Director George Stevens said Tuesday that he anticipates a 6.5 percent increase in consolidated taxes each year. But the slowdown in growth so far this year has stripped county coffers of about $25 million that was expected with average population growth.

“We had no growth (in the budget) last year, but we can absorb that,” Stevens said. “If it extends to ’09, it’s really going to be a problem.”

Fewer homes being sold leads to fewer purchases of large appliances and furniture. The decline in those sales translates into fewer sales tax dollars for the government.

The county is already struggling to serve the community efficiently. In particular, the overloaded court system is feeling the brunt of a funding shortage.

Commissioners put off allocating $142 million from the County Capital Projects Fund to the countywide capital improvement coffers on Tuesday. Nearly $15 million of that money is needed to renovate aging — and even new — courthouses.

Chief District Judge Kathy Hardcastle is requesting the money to add four courtrooms to Family Court and renovate the Regional Justice Center, the $185 million courthouse that after a four-year delay finally opened its doors in 2005.

To accommodate six new judges assigned to Clark County by the Legislature last year, the county is seeking to lease additional space in the privately owned Phoenix Building on 3rd Street downtown.

Hardcastle said that after a 10-month delay, the court’s newest judges were finally moved into the reconfigured 10th floor of the Regional Justice Center last month.

“I had judges in storage closets,” Hardcastle said. “A delay in allocation could have a huge impact on our ability to serve the community. I will have no place to put these judges. This is something that is critical to the courts.”

But commissioners opted to consider alternatives during the next 30 days. They gave court administrators permission to begin negotiations with architects and contractors while they study their options.

“We need to try to see if there is a creative way to deal with this because historically we have relied on capital,” Clark County Commission Chairman Rory Reid said. “We need our staff to look at this in some way we haven’t before.”

District Court officials hope to receive $13 million for four new courtrooms at Family Court. They are also asking for an additional $2 million to modify the Regional Justice Center and cover lease payments at the Phoenix Building over the next 18 months.

County officials already have studied alternatives to make the court more efficient. Administrators recently visited Maricopa County, Ariz., to review its night court and weekend court programs. But Hardcastle said holding court during off-hours might not be an ideal solution.

“What they’re finding is it might not be economically feasible,” Hardcastle said of the Maricopa court system.

In Maricopa County, family and juvenile courts are open until 9 p.m. on weekdays and conduct all-day Saturday sessions.

Assistant Clark County Manager Elizabeth Quillin said the county must carefully balance allocating the money with launching nighttime and weekend court sessions.

There is a lack of parking at both courthouses, so if afternoon sessions overlap with morning calendars, attorneys and clients will struggle to find spaces. The courts would also have to consider the schedules of private attorneys. In addition, the county would have to find qualified staff members willing to work odd hours.

“There are a lot of considerations; it’s not that easy to say let’s start calendaring at night,” Quillin said. “You might save money on the capital side, but what are your staff costs going to be?”

The Regional Justice Center was designed to accommodate the county’s growth, but no one expected the facility to be four years tardy.

The proposed allocation also was aimed at replacing and maintaining computer equipment throughout the county, developing a University Medical Center master plan, expanding the Metropolitan Police Department’s communication center and replacing county vehicles.

Contact reporter Adrienne Packer at apacker@reviewjournal.com or (702) 384-8710.

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