March 4, 2002
County terminates court contract with Woodinville, 16 other cities
by Jeanette Knutson
King County's bleak financial situation - shortfalls this year and a $50 million deficit on the horizon for 2003 - is forcing the county to terminate agreements to provide district court services to Woodinville and 16 other cities.
Termination of district court services will begin at the end of 2004, unless Woodinville renews its contract with the county at a higher price, one that allows the county to recover its costs fully.
Of course, the city has other options. It can create its own municipal court or join with other cities to form a regional court system.
According to Woodinville's City Manager Pete Rose, "It's been Woodinville's philosophy that if another unit of government is serving the residents of Woodinville well, the city is not going to offer that service by itself. If the city has to decide, its decision will be based upon three factors: economics, the quality of service and the proximity of service."
King County Executive Ron Sims said in a letter sent to the 17 affected cities that the county is currently providing court services at a loss.
"We are terminating the agreement because King County's current financial condition does not allow us to extend any contractual obligations that do not provide full cost recovery. Because of unanticipated court services costs, including excessive judicial positions and court security, the current agreement no longer provides for full cost recovery and appears to be getting worse," wrote Sims.
County officials figure the state-mandated number of judicial positions, now at 26, could easily be reduced to 18 elected judges. Apparently many cities within the county have created their own municipal courts, handling the same kinds of cases now heard in the county's district courts.
In an Opinion piece published Feb. 26 in the South County Journal, Sims and King County Council member Rob McKenna wrote, "In 1990, there were eight municipal courts in King County. By 2001, that number has increased to 20 such courts. The impact of this shift to more municipal courts is to siphon off the workload of district court. Yet state law still requires the county to maintain 26 district court judges."
"Even these calculated levels of judicial positions are subject to question (Here, Sims is referring to the county's estimated need for only 18 judges.)," wrote Sims to the affected cities, "because about 70 percent of the filings in district court are traffic infractions that arguably could be more efficiently handled by a magistrate."
Yet traffic infractions and parking violations are not the only cases heard in district court.
Said Sgt. Ken Wardstrom, Chief of Police Services for the city of Woodinville, all misdemeanors or civil infractions are heard in Redmond's Northeast District Court, Woodinville's closest district court. Theft cases, small claims, tickets issued from accidents, certain domestic violence cases and noise ordinance infractions are a few examples of cases that go to district court.
The intent of Sims' letter was to give the 17 cities currently contracting for district court services with the county ample time to plan for and create municipal courts, if they so choose, before the expiration of the current agreement.
Sims urged those cites who wished to strike a new agreement with the county for district court services to notify the county as soon as possible.