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State's tab for Circuit Court too costly, report says


A gubernatorial commission has concluded that it would be too expensive for the state to pay for operating the Circuit Court system -- a blow to efforts by Baltimore to have the state pick up the cost of the city's Circuit Court.

But the commission, chaired by former Prince George's County Del. Timothy F. Maloney, recommended instead that the state assume financial responsibility for paying Circuit Court jurors, court interpreters and courthouse security.

In addition, the commission recommended that the state support efforts to automate circuit courts throughout the state, to establish court masters to help reduce caseloads in those jurisdictions that do not currently have them, and to have clerks of courts begin paying rent to local jurisdictions for the office space they occupy.

If all of those recommendations are implemented over the next three years, the state share of the cost for operating the Circuit Court system would increase from 60 percent to about 75 percent, Mr. Maloney said.

"There is a misconception out there," Mr. Maloney said, that the cost of the Circuit Court system is paid for entirely by local governments when, in fact, the state already pays about $60 million of the overall $100 million tab.

David S. Bliden, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, which asked former Gov. William Donald Schaefer to appoint the study commission, called the report "realistic."

"So many of these past reports are just collecting dust, but this effort has the possibility of real life, not just shelf life," Mr. Bliden said. Counties, he said, are worried about "unfunded mandates" from the state and consider the courts to be a state function that local governments are forced to help finance.

But the report does not help city lawmakers or Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who have been trying for years to persuade the legislature to relieve the city of the $6 million-a-year cost of running the city Circuit Court. That would be the latest in a series of cost-saving state takeovers of city operations, including takeover of the city's community college and jail.

As a candidate for governor, Parris N. Glendening promised Mr. Schmoke he would help the city financially, including a state takeover of the Circuit Court. He later qualified that by saying such a takeover would hinge on the availability of money.

The budget Governor Glendening submitted to legislators Friday did not include funds for such a takeover.

In Baltimore's "Updated Strategic Financial Plan," hand-delivered to lawmakers by Mayor Schmoke on the General Assembly's opening day, the city calls state takeover of the Circuit Court, the state's attorney's office and the sheriff's office "a primary objective of city officials."

Nearly two weeks ago, Mr. Schmoke linked the takeover of the court system to his goal of cutting 20 cents off Baltimore's property tax rate -- the highest in the state -- by the end of the decade. Just last week, he tied it to the repeal of the so-called bottle tax.

Clinton R. Coleman, the mayor's spokesman, said the mayor is aware of the Maloney commission's report -- which has yet to be distributed to legislators -- but said the report agrees with Mr. Schmoke's "underlying premise . . . that the court system is a function that is more properly funded by the state than the local government."

The Maloney report, however, does not reach that conclusion. It says the state cannot currently afford the cost of taking over the entire court system.

Mr. Maloney said there was no agreement or consensus among the commission's 17 members as to whether eventual takeover of the court system is a good idea or not, but said there was "overwhelming commission opposition" to takeover of the city court system by itself.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, agreed that the state cannot afford such an expensive takeover at this time. "I don't see that taking place until there is an extraordinary upturn in the Maryland economy," he said.

On the Senate side, Judicial Proceedings Committee Chairman Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, said there is "absolutely" no support for takeover of a single jurisdiction's court system, such as the city's.

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