PASCO — The line of people waiting at Pasco Municipal Court can stretch from the office counter into the hallway at the Franklin County Courthouse.
The number of cases filed in the city court has doubled over the last decade, but the number of employees has not, according to Dot French, court administrator.
She said the court — which handles traffic infractions, criminal misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors cited by Pasco police — had 5,045 filed cases in 2000, while it had 10,179 in 2008.
Reasons for the increase likely are rooted in a 30 percent increase in Franklin County population since 2000 and an increase in the city’s police force.
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From 2000-08, Pasco added more than 20 police officers, said Police Chief Denis Austin. The department has doubled in size since 1996, reaching 78 employees, with 11 of them civilians, he said.
The pattern of caseload increase apparently continued in 2009. As of Oct. 31, the most recent data available, the court had 9,501 cases filed and had averaged 950 cases a month, French said.
That increasing workload is why French requested, and received, an additional position in Pasco’s 2010 budget.
The new employee, who has not been hired yet, will work full time at the counter in the court office and will allow other clerks to spend more time on other duties, French said.
The new position is scheduled for an hourly pay range of $10.33 to $13.60, according to the 2010 budget, which would mean about $21,500 to $28,300 for a 40-hour-a-week position.
“People are waiting a long time in here,” French said. “And we need to serve the public. It’s our job.”
Increased filings mean larger court dockets and more cases to process, French said. That means more hearings, and more money coming in, more phone calls and more customers. More warrants likely also are to be filed, and more cases will likely go into collection.
“It impacts everything we do,” she said.
French said Pasco has a low number of municipal court staff for the caseload it handles. Before asking for another employee, she compared Pasco Municipal Court to courts with a similar staff or caseload. She found that courts with the same number of employees had significantly fewer cases and courts with the same number of cases had more employees.
Municipal court is one of the few city departments that received a staff increase in the 2010 budget. The fire department added about 1.5 positions, and the police department cut two unfilled officer positions that had been in the 2009 budget.
Municipal court is budgeted to cost Pasco about $1.2 million in 2010 and have a staff of about 16.
The budget represents an increase of $70,000, but not all of the increase is because of the new position. The court also expects cost increases due to state-mandated changes.
Pasco operates its own municipal court, whereas Kennewick, Richland, West Richland and Prosser have their municipal cases heard in Benton County District Court.
City Manager Gary Crutchfield said Pasco looked at contracting municipal court services with Franklin County about 15 years ago. However, he said the city determined contracting tended to increase the cost of municipal court services.
The primary reason to add a staff member was to deal with the increasing caseload, Crutchfield said. But he said changes the state makes to courts each year also affect the workload, typically causing more paperwork.
The state Supreme Court determines the rules of the judicial system, Crutchfield said. He estimated a recent change to court process could cost the city an additional $40,000 this year.
-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org