After several months of trying to dig itself out of a financial hole, Tippecanoe County’s Court Services division is undergoing a massive reorganization.
Four of the agency’s seven full-time positions will be eliminated at the end of June as part of a broader change in the way the department serves low-level offenders.
The move comes after Court Services sought help from the County Council to address a more than $100,000 deficit.
In February, Tippecanoe Court Services Director Cindy Houseman asked the Council for an additional $15,000 to pay for three months of utilities and rent at its offices on North 4th Street in Lafayette while the agency sought ways to increase revenue.
The council denied that request, saying Court Services needed to first demonstrate it could return to solid financial footing. Houseman made some waves when she told WBAA after the meeting she was frustrated because of what she saw as the Council’s lack of support for the department. This week her job was eliminated.
Houseman had hoped more referrals from three new judges elected in November would give her office the boost it needed.
Tippecanoe Superior Court 5 Judge Sean Persin is one of those judges. He heads an advisory board that has worked for the past year to find ways to improve Court Services.
Persin says revenue seemed to be on the upswing in February and March, but then trailed off again starting in April.
He says the declining revenue comes from a drastic decrease in the number of misdemeanor prosecutions in Tippecanoe County. He says 2014 saw approximately 500 fewer misdemeanor filings than any year in the past decade. Persin says that’s due to changes to the state’s criminal code, especially changes to Indiana’s public intoxication statute, which now requires that a person be endangering a life, disturbing the peace or harassing, annoying or alarming another person to be subject to arrest.
Persin says another new law requires counties to eliminate redundancies in the services they offer.
He says that meant the county had to examine the court’s drug and alcohol programs.
“At some point you say ‘Why do we have government offices essentially competing with each other for the same type of work?’" says Persin. "What you ought to do is figure out who does the work best, who’s most suited to do that type of work, and then allocate it for each office.”
But County Council member Sally Siegrist says the new law goes even further than that by making counties with duplicate services ineligible for certain grants.
“There’s a pool of money the state makes available for court services, community corrections, and probation," she says. "What their intention in passing this legislation was to eliminate the duplication of services among those departments or financing wouldn’t be made available.”
Siegrist says all of these factors created what she calls a “perfect storm” for the reorganization.
“Court Services has been in financial trouble for several years and has been being asked to right their ship by the County Council," she says. "We will still end up needing to write a check for that deficit that they’ve run up. But at least now maybe we’ve stopped the leak.”
Siegrist insists the council was not trying to shut down court services, just make the department financially self-sufficient.
“Certainly low-level offenders need to be evaluated and Court Services has done a valuable service for the community in doing that," says Siegrist. "And they were also doing education, but we have found that it would be more cost-effective to refer that education piece out. The courts are only mandated to do the evaluation process.”
That reorganization means current director Cindy Houseman is out of a job after more than a decade with Court Services because her position is one of the four being eliminated. Kelly McManomy, another long-time Court Services employee, has been named the division’s new supervisor.
Houseman says she was ready to retire anyway, but will stay involved as a contractor for Court Services teaching a drug and alcohol prevention and intervention program.
“The County Council and the Commissioners have helped as much as they could. We just couldn’t keep going the way we were going," says Houseman. "So when bill 1006 came out and we realized that on top of all that there were some things that were redundant that were being done, and by the time we got rid of all those Court Services really could be a smaller department.”
Judge Persin says Court Services will become a division within the Tippecanoe County Probation Department.
He says the lease at the building Court Services currently occupies on North 4th Street is up at the end of June and it’s unclear where the employees will be moved.
But Persin says it will not be in the same space as Probation.
“The primary reason being as a general rule you don’t want to mix your low-risk population with your high-risk population and have them all seen together in the same group talking," says Persin. "I’ve recommended that Court Services operate out of the courthouse for many reasons, including just the compliance rate skyrockets when they’re already here and we say go downstairs to Court Services.”
Houseman hopes current clients won’t interrupt their treatment as a result of the upheaval.
“If they have an appointment here, they need to come," she says. "There’s not going to be any stop in the services provided. They may be seeing a different person, but the services are still going to be there.”
The reduction in force at Court Services is effective June 30th.