A drop in the number of tickets issued by Southampton Village Police and ordinance enforcement officers in 2011 and the revenues they generate for the village, which led to the village’s Justice Court technically ending the year in the red, has spotlighted a habit of casual oversight that had the court running over budget for years before actually realizing a deficit.
According to village financial records, the Justice Court was over budget in the 2007-08, 2008-09, 2009-10 and 2010-11 fiscal years. In 2008-09 and 2009-10, the court’s robust revenues obscured the overspending, because it still realized a profit despite posting better than $80,000 more in expenses than budgeted in 2009-10. In 2010-11, the court was again more than $50,000 over budget. At that point, independent auditors highlighted the court’s spending because a more than $150,000 decline in revenues left the department in the red, according to a 2011 audit that was completed earlier this spring.
Village officials said the revelation was troubling on two fronts: both the decline in revenues from tickets and fines, and the undisciplined management of the department’s finances.
“It’s not something that was ever supposed to even be a consideration when talking about the Justice Court—that court was created to make the village money, not cost money,” Mayor Mark Epley said. “There’s going to have to be some changes made from a couple different angles, obviously.”
When Southampton Village created its own Justice Court in 2002, it was done on the premise that adjudicating misdemeanors and, primarily, traffic violations in-house would be a financial windfall for the village government, both because the village would not have to share revenues from tickets and fines with the town court system, and also because it could better pursue scofflaws for back fines.
And for most of its tenure, the court has been a substantial moneymaker. In its first year, the court took in some $600,000 in revenues, whereas the village had been averaging just $125,000 in prior years when the village’s tickets and violations were handled by the Town Justice Court. In that first year of business, the court collected $400,000 more in revenues than it spent, much of which was attributed to the collection of delinquent fines.
Operating costs at the time, however, were only $150,000 per year. By 2009-10, they had climbed to more than $346,000. But the fines levied and collected by the court also climbed steadily from most of 2002 to 2010—peaking at $592,000 in 2009-10—and while spending increases were chipping into profits, the court remained comfortably enough in the black that little urgency was placed on reining in spending.
“There’s no question that costs grew in that period,” Mayor Epley said. “Some of that was necessary—the metal detector, for instance. They needed more help in the office when it was getting busier every year. But we needed to be minding the bills a little better.”
From its initial staff of two judges and one full-time clerk, the court now employs two full-time clerks and a court bailiff, as well as part-time help in the summertime, with more than $170,000 in annual salaries—more than all its operating costs in 2002. The court also spends some $70,000 a year on court stenographer services.
In 2007-08, after typically coming in under budget, the court overran its $286,000 budget by about $13,000, but took in $474,000 in revenues. The following fiscal year, the village upped the court’s spending forecast to $321,000. Final costs still outpaced the increase by $6,000, but court revenues leaped to $584,500. It was the first year the court started employing part-time help in the busy summer months to assist the two full-time clerks.
Despite the two years of small overages, the following year the village cut the anticipated budget for the court by $55,000 in the 2009-10 fiscal budget, to $266,000. Spending, however, climbed to $346,000, resulting in an $80,000 overage. But, again, the department took in a record-high amount of revenues, more than $592,000.
Mayor Epley said that a substantial part of the discrepancy in the budget that year was probably attributable to the salary for the court’s bailiff not being accounted for, since the officer had been counted as part of the village’s police department budget in some years. So the overspending was probably not as severe as it appears in financial statements. Nonetheless, he said, pennies were clearly not being pinched in the Justice Court as they were in other departments.
Following the broad overspending in 2009-10, the Village Board, laboring to keep tax increases to a minimum, increased the spending forecast for the court in its 2010-11 budget by just $25,000, to $291,655. Included in that budget was $10,000 for the hiring of part-time help for the two full-time clerks—triple what had been allotted in past years—in anticipation of the busy summer schedule.