Cielinski seeks improvements for Columbus Recorder's Court as workload mounts, revenue rises

More police officers on the streets and thousands of cases flooding Columbus Recorder's Court every month have taken a toll on the staff and resources serving the court.

The court, which generates 1.5 percent of total revenue for the city, has averaged almost 69,000 cases a year since fiscal 2009, the year an additional 100 police officers were approved in a local option sales tax with road improvements and capital projects. Just days before the fiscal 2016 budget is released during a Tuesday work session of Columbus Council, the senior Recorder's Court judge has noted a need for staff salary increases, an improved sound system, to replace broken chairs and the ability to process e-ticketing and an online payment process for motorists who are cited for traffic violations.

"I'd like to see the courtroom made more accessible, having the chairs work and don't have signs on them, a sound system and a better environment," said Recorder's Court Judge Michael Cielinski. "That is basically what I want. The court is generating more money."

At $43,500 a year, Cielinski is among the lowest paid judges in the state in a court that hears traffic, criminal and city ordinance cases made by the Columbus Police Department, Special Enforcement, Airport Police, Metro Narcotics Task Force, Columbus Department of Fire & Emergency Medical Services, Columbus State University Police and the Georgia State Patrol. The court is responsible for setting bonds, issuing warrants, collecting fines, hearing and determining if probable cause exists for Superior or State Court offenses. The court also hears city ordinance violations such as barking dogs, solid waste disposal and certain state offenses.

Columbus Councilor Berry "Skip" Henderson said some councilors recognize the need to do something for the Recorder's Court judges.

"I've talked to a couple of judges over there," he said. "For me, I think from a prioritization standpoint; why don't they get the judges a little more money and work on some of the capital expenses later?"

Henderson said the pay for the Recorder's Court judges was designed so attorneys could continue their own private law practice. "That's why the pay was not as high as what it probably should be for a sitting judge," he said. "It's gotten to a point where they don't have time to do their law practice."

Sales tax could be used to correctly offset the additional case loads stemming from the additional officers on the streets, but the city is now facing problems with the other sales tax because it is factored into the city's fund balance.

The increased cases have extended the hours for the judicial clerks on heavy court days. For Cielinski, the day starts at 7 a.m. and doesn't end on most days until 12:30 or 1 p.m.

Last week, Cielinski said the sound system was not operating to the point that he couldn't charge a man with hearing aids with contempt of court because he couldn't hear his case when called. "I dismissed the case," he said.

He took the same action in a February case when a young nurse from Augusta came to the court with her soldier husband, a captain at Fort Gordon. The woman said she went back home after sitting in the court and not hearing her name called on the outdated sound system. Choking back tears, the woman said she had to take off from work and travel to Columbus for a ticket.

Cielinski, a judge since 1981, said the system probably hasn't been upgraded in the last 20 years. The judge said he must spend extra time trying to determine whether a person actually heard their name called. "Sometimes when you don't have somebody come up, I will even say their name," he said.

When it comes to the seats in the courtroom, the judge said he tried to get seats from Carmike Cinemas to replace the worn out chairs. One seat was such a hazard, a sign was posted on it, he said. "One actually has a spring in it that supposedly injured a lady on the posterior side," he said. "I will put it to you that way."

The judge is hopeful the court has moved a step closer to processing e-ticketing with legislative approval of a bill to increase the current technology fee from $15 to $25. The police department already is working to get e-ticketing for patrol officers.

With special software and equipment, Cielinski said an officer will be able to print a traffic ticket in five minutes and return on patrol instead of 20 to 25 minutes it takes to write a ticket by hand.

"If you're stopped by a state trooper, you are gone in five minutes," the judge said.

The court will need a new computer system to process the tickets and allow online payments which aren't available now. Paying traffic tickets online would make it easier for truck drivers and soldiers, Cielinski said.

Mayor Teresa Tomlinson, who serves as the city's public safety director, said there has been no request for capital improvements in Recorder's Court over the last four years. The city was looking at laying off 100 to 120 employees this fiscal year until agreements were made for reforms in the city's health care and pension.

"If we didn't have pension reform and health care reform we would have been laying off a bunch of people," she said. "You would have had very broad furloughs and layoffs."

Last year, the fiscal 2015 budget for Recorder's Court was set at $884,463, which was a 5.4 percent drop from the fiscal 2014 budget of $934,927. Cielinski said he hasn't requested capital improvements in the past because he was directed not to increase the court's budget. The needs are too great this year. "I will give her a letter that states there are capital improvements that need to be made," he said.

The city is looking at another tight 2016 fiscal budget, with about $20 million in requests for new lawnmowers, police cruisers and garbage trucks, but only $5 million to spend. "You have to go for the most critical, the urgent and manage it," Tomlinson said.

After meeting with department managers on budget requests, the Budget Review Committee will decide if critical needs are possible. Requests are placed on the add or delete list before the proposed budget is approved by the 10-member council. "I think we are going to be a little more active in the budget this year, maybe altering some things, cutting funds in other areas in order to apply it where we feel like it needs to be applied," Henderson said.