JEFFERSON CITY _ Counties who feel their budgets are held hostage by circuit court judges would get some relief under a measure being considered by the Missouri legislature.
Judges develop a budget for the circuit court, which includes sheriff salaries, and give it to the county commission. If the county commission doesn't agree with the judge's budget, they can appeal to the Judiciary Financial Commission in Jefferson City.
County officials have long been bothered by certain aspects of this arrangement.
Judges can submit their budget at any time, often giving the county commission little time to consider changes. The judge can grant a raise to sheriffs, leaving no money to give other county employees salary increases. The judge could increase the salaries of sheriffs or instruct that a prison be built at any time during the year, leaving the county commission stuck with the bill.
If the county commission does decide to appeal the judge's budget, they often lose. And even if they win, the commission is expected to pay for the judge's representation at the commission.
For three years, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Gary Witt, D-Platte City, has been working on legislation that would give counties more control over their budget. But opposition from the sheriff's association blocked passage.
What Witt presented this year was a compromise.
"We have come a long way," said Bill Gamble, lobbyist for the Sheriff's Association. "We have come from a point where we vehemently opposed this legislation to where we support it."
As part of the compromise, Witt's bill gives the County Commission less control over the court budgets than earlier proposals.
Provisions included in this year's version would:
* Allow counties to amend the annual budget during a fiscal year in which the county receives additional funds.
* Require the judge to submit the budget for the circuit court to the county commission 15 days prior to the deadline for the next budget year.
* Take the power to grant raises at any time during the year away from judges. The only time the judge could grant raises or hire new employees would be at the time the budget is submitted or in the case of an emergency.
The bill has been approved by the House and was heard by the Senate's Agriculture and Local Government Committee on Wednesday (March 29).
When it was heard before the committee, several senators pointed out problems that they have had in their counties.
Sen. Harold Caskey, D-Butler, said the circuit court judge in his county submitted a budget that gave sheriffs a 7 percent raise. Other county employees didn't get as large a salary increase.
"Then when the county wanted to appeal, the judge demanded that $10,000 (more) be put into the circuit court's budget," he said.
In the future, county officials would like to see more legislation that would give the county more leeway in deciding the circuit court's budget.
"This is very difficult times for counties," said Bill Waris, a lobbyist for Jackson County. "When I was on the county board for two terms, we challenged the budget seven times. Something has to be done in these times of tight budgets to give counties more control."
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