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Small claims court could move from City-County Building

September 19, 2011
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The Center Township trustee is pushing to move the township's small claims court from the downtown Indianapolis City-County Building to the Julia M. Carson Government Center in what is being promoted as a cost-saving measure.

Trustee Eugene Akers’ plan, which could be approved at a Wednesday township board meeting, is not without controversy, however. The court’s judge, Michelle Smith Scott, is adamantly opposed to the move.

“If the trustee for Center [Township] is able to do this and is allowed to interfere with the court over the objection of the judge,” she said, “I don’t think it sets a good precedent.”

The court is the city’s oldest of nine township small claims courts and is the only one located in the City-County Building, where it’s been housed since the 28-story building opened in 1962.

Scott said the court needs to be in the building because it has the highest volume of cases among Marion County courts—14,000 in 2010. The building’s security is critical, she said, given the large number of litigants coming into her courtroom.

The township board held a public hearing on the proposal Sept. 7. But Scott says Akers, a fellow Democrat, never informed her of his plan and declined her request for an independent feasibility study to be conducted to determine whether the move is necessary.

The move could be completed by the end of the year and before the county increases the court’s rent 5 percent. The court currently pays $16,701 annually to lease its space, according to Marion County Auditor Billie Breaux.

Akers, who’s been the township trustee just nine months, contends the township could save money if the court moves rent-free to the township-owned Carson Center on Fall Creek Parkway.

He’s proposing the court take the 2,200-square-foot space vacated by 300 East, a restaurant and bar at the Carson Center that closed Sept. 1. The small claims court now occupies 1,600 square feet in the basement of the City-County Building.

“I’m locked in as well as she’s locked in,” Akers said of his disagreement with Scott. “As far as I’m concerned, with the cost of being in the City-County Building, it’s just a smart move.”

Scott acknowledged the small claims court operates in tight quarters, but she would rather wait to see whether additional space might become available at some point within the City-County Building.

Township budget cuts are prompting Akers to explore the cost savings, which also might include eliminating as many as 20 employees from the township’s 74-person staff, he said.

The Center Township trustee, whose main function is to provide short-term aid to the needy, receives $7 million annually. Akers is bracing for a 15-percent budget cut of $1.3 million next year, due to a continued loss of funds from property taxes, which make up local government’s largest source of revenue.

Center Township has a large stockpile of cash on hand, though. Parked in a series of money market accounts, the surplus at the end of 2010 stood at $8.5 million—more than the office brings in annually to handle poor relief, according to state financial reports.

Akers estimated the cost to move the court and renovate and furnish the space at $459,000. The one-time expense is worth the long-term savings, he said.

But critics of township government such as Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, say townships should not meddle in affairs outside their true scope of poor relief.

The State Chamber long has lobbied for township-reform legislation that would eliminate the form of local government to save on costs.

“Being a landlord doesn’t appear to fall within the statutorily articulated duties of the township trustee,” Brinegar said. “It’s an example of many that exist around the state, of trustees getting involved in issues beyond their constitutional or statutory duties.”

Akers’ plan has support, though.

Jackie Nytes, a Democrat City-County councilor and executive director of the Mapleton-Fall Creek Development Corp., is among the backers.

“We have a lot of housing in the neighborhood that we would like to sell or rent, and the court has employees,” Nytes said. “We’d love to see some of those employees live in our neighborhood.”

The township bought the building in 1994 for $400,000. It’s named for former U.S. Rep. Julia Carson, who served as Center Township trustee from 1990 to 1996. The township spent more than $5 million renovating the building, but only one of its seven floors is used for township administration.

The center is occupied by leased offices, a Key Bank branch and, until this month, the 300 East restaurant.

Local businessman Bill Mays was part of a group that invested $500,000 to launch the restaurant in 2006. Mays said he and local attorney Lacy Johnson could have continued to underwrite restaurant losses, but others couldn’t.

Mays said he continued to financially support the restaurant to give African-Americans and others in the area a place to meet and conduct business.

“The neighborhood was very slow to warm to it,” he said, “and that’s too bad, because it’s their loss.”

Mays said he backs Akers’ plan to move the small claims court into the space, citing an abundance of free parking near the building.

“It’s a better utilization,” he said. “It makes a lot of sense.”

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