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Kelly to state legs: Judges’ orders circumvent democratic process
Below, for your reading pleasure, is an e-mail Matt Kelly sent today to state Sen. Edd Houck and House Speaker Bill Howell.
Kelly says if the state is going to grant judges the power to order court facilities to be built, it ought to at least help localities with the cost of those facilities. He also urges them to consider that the caseloads driving the need for more court space are attributable largely to non-city residents, and points out the loss of state support in other areas of government service.
Keep in mind that rising caseloads and the need for more space is only one component of the case that’s been made for the need for new courts. Judges, lawyers and many others have also said that the Circuit Courthouse is inadequate for today’s security needs, and in fact inmates facing trial have escaped from custody in that courthouse in the recent past.
The e-mail is below, and no, I am not renaming this the "Matt Kelly’s Stance on Building Courts" blog.
Ed/Bill,I am writing to express my concern regarding the authority vested in judges to order localities to construct new facilities. Under the current financial constraints we all find ourselves facing the fact that unelected officials can direct the expenditure of taxpayers dollars, in a sense impose higher taxes, and impact the financial health and services of a community cannot be justified.The reason Fredericksburg finds itself faced with the need for a new court facility is not all of our own making. As it is reported in the Courthouse Feasibility Study the driving force for this project is increasing case loads. As noted in the report,
"These results indicate that caseloads for all the city courts have been trending upward since 1995,despite the fact that Fredericksburg’s population of about 20,000 has remained essentially unchanged during that period. The reason for this fact seems clear: Fredericksburg is not an isolated city, but the hub of a rapidly growing region that includes Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline, and King George Counties. While the city population has not grown, the regional population has climbed dramatically from about 209,000 in 1995 to about 301,000 today, an increase of more than forty percent. Fredericksburg thus serves as the center of commercial, business, cultural, and entertainment activity for a population many times larger than its own. It is apparent that in recent years a population-driven increase in such activity in the city, along with substantial commercial development within the city limits, has had a corresponding effect on city court case loads."
Fredericksburg represents only 7% of the regional poulation. Over the next 20 years that percentage will decrease further. We have the lowest median income and highest percentage of residents below the poverty line in PD 16. And our size limits our options for future expansion of our tax base. Yet, under the current state funding formula for education we are covering most of the school budget and state support has decreased in most areas while cost for such expenditure as Constitutional Officers, continue to rise. It is difficult now just to maintain basic levels of service under these circumstances. To add the debt service for a new court facility of over $3 million will make it almost impossible.
There is no question that a new court complex is needed and it should be done sooner rather than later. But the current financial realities dictate the need for maximun flexibility in moving this project forward. I do not want to see Fredericksburg residents facing both the financial burden and reduction of services that will occurr if judges are left with the final say as to when we proceed with the project.
As our representatives in Richmond I am asking for your assistance in either addressing the issue of the courts having the authority to circumvent the democratic process and order the construction of facilities or consider some financial relief to localities that are faced with such an expenditure due to issues outside their direct control.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
City Councilman, Ward #3
City of Fredericksburg