Benton Franklin Superior Court asks commission for help getting new judge

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldDecember 19, 2012 

Benton Franklin Superior Court needs another judge to help handle its growing caseload, court officials told Benton County commissioners Tuesday.

The officials asked commissioners to sign a letter to the state Board for Judicial Administration supporting the additional position -- a step in the process for adding a seventh judge slot. Franklin County commissioners already agreed.

"Right now, we're just trying to get your support so we can get legislation sponsored" in the upcoming state Legislative session, Judge Craig Matheson told the commissioners during their Tuesday meeting.

The court already is "working beyond capacity," he said.

The commissioners put off taking action until January, when a new commissioner, Jerome Delvin, will come aboard. He was elected in November to replace Commissioner Leo Bowman, who is retiring.

The last Tri-City superior court judge position was added almost a decade ago.

The county wouldn't have to pay for the new position yet. "Once it's authorized, it's available for at least five years, and we're hoping to fund it in 2014, if the counties have the resources to pay for that," Matheson told commissioners.

The state would cover benefits and half the salary, with the rest of the salary being split between Benton and Franklin counties.

Benton County, which has a larger population, would pay a larger share.

Court officials estimate Benton County's share would be about $54,900 annually and Franklin County's about $19,500. The court doesn't anticipate needing to hire extra support staff for the new judge, court Administrator Pat Austin told the Herald.

Commissioner Jim Beaver said he's supportive, though he has concerns about the cost.

Also Tuesday:

w Commissioners adopted a $113.6 million operating budget for the coming biennium. The unanimous vote ended weeks of work to bridge a projected $2.7 million shortfall.

"It was a collaborative effort between all the elected officials and departments" to reach a balanced budget, Keith Mercer, county finance manager, said after the meeting.

County departments across the board found savings, including the sheriff's office, which is the largest. The sheriff's office trimmed more than $769,000 in jail costs. The county also will use about $500,000 from its capital fund to cover patrol vehicle replacements as needed, shifting that need from the operating fund.

County Administrator David Sparks said the budget maintains current services for the public.

w Commissioners heard more than an hour of public testimony about a proposal to form a county road improvement district to build about 1.9 miles of road in an area near West Richland.

Each of the 97 parcels in the proposed district -- which is near the Benton Fire District 4 station on Bombing Range Road -- would pay an assessment to cover costs. An estimate puts the project cost at $2 million, including right-of-way acquisition and construction.

Some landowners petitioned the county to form the district.

Public testimony Tuesday was mixed, with some supporters saying the roads are needed for safety and some opponents saying they wouldn't benefit and shouldn't have to pay.

Commissioners didn't make a decision and will take up the matter again in mid-January.

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