Montcalm Co. reduces budget cuts for courts

County has been struggling to get budget in order after years of deficits

STANTON, Mich. (WOOD) — Facing the prospect of costly litigation with a sitting judge, the Montcalm County Board of Commissioners backed off a plan to reduce the district court budget by tens of thousands of dollars.

In a 5-4 decision at their Monday evening meeting, commissioners dropped $75,000 in budget reductions.

This may be good news for the courts, but the county will still have to make cuts to other departments or end 2018 with less than $15,000 to pay for unexpected expenses. No additional cuts were made at Monday’s meeting, so it remains to be seen how the finances will be settled.

This is hardly the first Montcalm County has struggled with its budget. In at least 13 of the last 15 years, it has operated at a deficit. Voters have rejected tax increases. Last year, among other staffing cuts, it eliminated more than 10 positions from its sheriff’s department to save more than $771,000.

“We essentially have contract deputies now and how do you continue to cut there? Public safety is extremely important,” said Robert Clingenpeel, Montcalm County controller-administrator.

Clingenpeel came into the job in May 2016, and he was hired to clean up the mess.

“We at least have that budget in 2018 that says going forward that we can maintain this,” he said.

He has tackled the issue with the help of an auditing firm, but righting the financial ship has meant rough seas for some of things the county used to spend money on.

“We entered this year with the need for at least half a million (dollars) in cuts,” he said.

County commissioners previously approved $82,000 in cuts for the operation of the district court, but District Court Judge Donald Hemingsen said in a letter to the commission that he had no intention of implementing those cuts.

Hemingsen, Stanton’s full-time judge for 20 years, was direct in the letter:

“I have no intention of cutting the District Court Budget by $75,000,” he wrote.

Before the Monday meeting, Clingenpeel told 24 Hour News 8 that after the cuts made to public safety and other areas, it was time for the courts to step up to the plate.

“There’s not any targeting or anything like that, it’s just an issue of we have to make cuts, so if not there, we find somewhere else,” he said.

There was a battle last year when commissioners made $94,500 in cuts to District Court and Hemingsen eventually implemented $80,000 in a compromise. He said that couldn’t happen again and that $82,000 in cuts would “impermissibly impair our necessary operations.”

In his letter, he added he was sure that the county wanted to avoid the cost of litigation and called for the board to mediate with him and the State Court Administrator.

He was not available Monday to provide comment.