CROWN POINT — All Lake County taxpayers are set to bear the costs associated with more cases being filed in the county courts after Hammond and Whiting shutter their city courts Dec. 31.
The full financial impact of the city court closures likely won't be known until next year. But, on Tuesday, the Lake County Council approved the hiring of a new court administrator/referee at an annual salary of $88,692 to help handle the extra work.
Judge Aleksandra Dimitrijevic of Lake Superior Court Room 4 in Hammond said she actually needs a full-time magistrate judge to accommodate a civil and criminal caseload that already was growing prior to the city courts closing.
A magistrate, she said, would make it possible for two courtrooms to operate simultaneously, one hearing criminal cases and the other handling small claims, ordinance violations and other civil matters.
However, the creation of a new magistrate position requires approval by the Indiana General Assembly, since magistrates are paid by the state, and the Legislature's study committee on courts last month declined for procedural reasons to recommend a new magistrate for Lake County.
As a result, Dimitrijevic said she had no choice but to request a second, county-funded court administrator/referee for her court until the General Assembly again considers new magistrate requests during the 2021 state budget year.
The county council voted 7-0 to approve the new court administrator/referee position.
Hammond and Whiting officials have said their communities no longer can afford to maintain city courts to process misdemeanor crimes and ordinance violations with state-imposed property tax caps continually sapping municipal revenue.
By shifting those cases onto the county, Hammond expects to save $1.5 million a year and Whiting up to $200,000 annually.
Martin Goldman, the county court administrator, said it's essential the state ultimately provide an additional magistrate since "these city court closures are just the first in what we believe will be additional city/town court closures" in Lake County.