A Tippecanoe County agency that has been in the black for decades is suddenly more than 100-thousand dollars in the hole.
Tippecanoe Court Services is a drug and alcohol program that evaluates clients referred by the courts, determines the best plan of action, and monitors that plan to make sure the client is compliant with the court and is staying sober.
The agency was self-sustaining until this year, and is now a little more than 100-thousand dollars in the red.
Court Services Fundraising and Marketing Manager Lisa Smith says the agency doesn’t receive any money from the county, but funds its own budget by charging the people it sees for referral services.
A combination of factors is contributing to the budget woes, starting with a decrease in misdemeanor drug and alcohol arrests -- which means fewer clients.
“The West Lafayette Police Department appears to be handling minor consumptions and PI’s a little bit differently,” says Smith. “Furthermore we’re seeing people that are coming here from other states, other cities and counties, and a lot of those people are indigent status or aren’t willing to pay the fees.”
By state law, Court Services is required to accept every client referred to it by the court, regardless of ability to pay.
Smith says the county’s three new judges elected in November believe in Court Services and appear to want more people in treatment than previous judges.
She says that will increase the number of clients, which in turn would boost revenue.
A new advisory board is also preparing recommendations for how to improve the system.
The group is chaired by Superior Court 5 Judge Sean Persin and includes other judges, attorneys, commissioners and council members, as well as representatives from court services, probation, and community corrections.
Smith says the board is already working on changing the way Court Services structures its fees to more of an a la carte system. Currently clients are charged a flat fee of $350 for case management.
So instead of having a “one price fits all” program, the services would be broken down and charged for accordingly.
“Obviously the consumers usually really don’t want to pay those fees, and a lot of times their attorneys have issues with the prices of the fees,” says Smith. “But our advisory board has been really helpful in seeing that the services do have a cost and they do have a value. So when we have a whole advisory board examine that and set up a new fee schedule, it does cause a little more transparency and a little more validity to the fees that we charge.”
Smith adds moving into a building on North 4th Street that was recently purchased by the county will save money, too. While they will still have to pay rent, they will no longer be responsible for maintenance or utilities.
She says the agency is also investigating grants to raise revenue, and has dedicated a part-time employee to monitoring all payment plans and accounts turned over to collections.
While they are in the process of turning things around, Court Services officials this week asked the County Council for $15,000 to pay for three months of rent and utilities for its current offices.
But Council members voted 4-2 against giving them the money.
Councilor Roland Winger says he’s not opposed to helping Court Services become solvent again, he’s just doesn’t think the timing is right to appropriate the money now.
“I’m willing to acknowledge that we are probably going to have to write a check at some point,” says Winger. “But until things get under control, I’m not in favor of us doing $15,000 here and $15,000 there. I’d rather give them a chance this year to get the thing moving in the right direction with all these new factors and then see where we are come mid-to-late year.”
Councilor Kathy Vernon is also willing to wait and see if the agency can increase revenue, but she thinks the conversation needs to go further than that.
“Is this a program that’s appropriate for us at county government to be doing? Or is there another agency out there that we should we be partnering with that has the expertise in this type of treatment, therapy, or whatever we call it? Maybe there’s a therapy component that they have that obviously we can’t do, we’re only doing education, and they have the expertise on collecting, billing, doing all these things.”
Court Services Director Cindy Houseman says it can be frustrating to deal with the county council.
She says the agency had been financially independent until this past year, and it’s disappointing the council isn’t more willing to help them through this tough time.
“I wish that they could see that this is a very important piece for the community,” says Houseman. “I think that because Court Services is here, fewer people go to jail, more people are monitored and able to go back into the community and able to function and pay taxes which is part of that General Fund. A lot of our clients pay taxes, so it’s their money too.”
Houseman says if Court Services is unable to turn things around, the responsibility for dealing with clients referred by the courts would fall to Probation. She says that would shift the problems to another department, not eliminate them.