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Small claims court could move from City-County Building

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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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  • Best Decision
    I Thank that it is a prime example of fixing a budget area where an agency that helps the poor with bad times already upon us and there are more people and families in need of this agency more than normal. So look at the budget saving way!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • Support for Judge MSS
    Why spend money on moving the small claim court and renovating it? Leave court where it belongs, in the City County Building where it can be supported by other courts!
  • Security
    The security at the CC building causes huge delays. They go a bit overboard, taking fingernail clippers an the like. How many judges have been attacked with fingernail clippers?
  • SECURITY
    I tend to agree with the JUDGE in this matter. People in this court tend to get angry. Security should be TOP priority. The City County Building does a good job in this regard.
    • questionable savings
      Considering the huge upfront investment, and the opportunity cost (money market fund interest rate on the initial investment and potentially forsaken future rental income from this space), I don't think this is about savings...
    • C-Co Basement is Pit
      The basement area where the court is now is a pit. Quite frankly, it stinks down there On heavy days people are lined up like cattle. The analogy is appropriate because the docket is dominated by collection agencies. If there is more space and even a little sunshine, I'm all for the move.
    • Why charge rent in the first place?
      Why is county government charging rent to itself? That sounds like somebody's slush fund to me.
    • Support For Judge MSS
      I support Judge Michelle Smith Scott in staying put in the CC Bldg. It sounds as if the other party in favor of the move is trying to make up for the short-comings of wasting money & under-utilization on the FC Bldg. It's obviously, the restaurant tried yet failed as time proved it is about LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. The trustee may want to look at selling the FC Bldg since 1 of 7 floors are being used.
      • remodeling contracts
        $459,000 to remodel 2,000 square feet? I'm guessing the guy who's proposing the move is best friends with the contractor who wins that bid!!!! That's just insane!!!!
      • terrible everything...
        terrible location...terrible building...terrible bar idea they tried to put in...terrible idea to ask the government to save the day by moving this court in...talk about playing both sides of the fence...this dude has some nerve...let the building die
      • 26 Year Payback
        Not counting moving costs or rent that Akers might charge to the court, Akers' savings plan will pay for itself in 26 years. Watch for who gets those remodeling contracts totaling $459,000. I bet there won't be any competitive bids.

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