District Court consolidation on the table again

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners are once again considering a proposal to close the District Court in Aberdeen and move all operations to Montesano.

It’s an issue that’s been considered several times, but always rejected because the potential costs didn’t outweigh the savings and the details involved in actually doing the consolidation never were ironed out.

District Court Judge Stephen Brown noted that the two biggest issues have been where, precisely, to place a room for a second District Court in Montesano and where all of the files for District Court could be stored.

Utilities Director Kevin Varness, who oversees the facilities at the county, briefed the county commissioners about an early proposal, which could be to create a second District Court courtroom in the current law library on the second floor of the historic courthouse in Montesano. Varness said that storage of paperwork could also be done in an off-site building.

There would also have to be changes in the way the District Court’s office is set up. Currently, there’s only one window for the public. Varness said that in order to handle a surge of public use, a second window would need to be added.

Brown said he’s looking forward to an architect’s proposed designs on how it all could be sorted out.

“We’re at the edge of being able to function in Aberdeen because of the budget considerations,” Judge Brown said in an interview. “Right now, it’s a struggle to do everything and our court administrators have to do a lot of the front line work that the clerks used to do, in addition to their regular duties. If we lose one more person, we won’t be able to function down in Aberdeen and there won’t be enough staff to operate in two locations.”

The court’s seven staff members took a 20 percent cut in pay this year and the court closed its Aberdeen location nearly every Friday this year. The court’s two probation staff members also took a 20 percent cut in pay, although Brown cautioned that any further cuts to probation also “cuts the revenue generated by the department, resulting in little or no net gain to the county budget.”

The District Court’s $1.24 million budget request for next year asks to eliminate the furloughs and restore services for the public.

County Commissioner Mike Wilson has seen several requests to consolidate the District Court locations during his eight years in office.

“Is this the year it’ll happen?” Wilson said. “I don’t know, but we are spending extra money to do courthouse security at the District Court in Aberdeen and maybe it makes sense to do it now.”

Wilson said that it’ll be important to keep some sort of law library, but he’s optimistic computers may be used and the details could be worked out.

Brown noted that an extra court in Montesano in the courthouse would also help the court on busy pre-trial days. Brown said the court used to use the county commission chambers, but since a deputy and a judge were attacked in the courthouse in March, the court stopped using the facilities.

“We felt with the security being provided it made no sense to run court proceedings outside the actual security envelope we have,” Brown said.

Brown noted that those unable to access District Court because of the current closures can still go online and use a credit card to pay their fines and fees. Brown said he’s also seen a large percentage of traffic hearings conducted by mail now.