HELENA – Helena leaders say a Montana Supreme Court ruling last week will force them to change the funding structure for their municipal court.
City Manager Dennis Taylor said, as of Monday, they have stopped imposing a local surcharge when someone is convicted of a misdemeanor under state law.
Last week, the state Supreme Court threw out a $25 fee that Missoula’s municipal court had charged a woman who pleaded no contest to disorderly conduct. Justices ruled that, since state law had already set the allowable fees and charges the court could impose, the city did not have the authority to add an additional charge.
Helena Municipal Court, like Missoula’s, charges people convicted of a state offense various fees. That includes $85 in surcharges specifically authorized in state law, to fund things like city attorney’s offices. Until this week, the court also charged an additional local fee of $5 if someone pleaded guilty or $20 if they were found guilty after a trial.
Taylor said, after Helena City Attorney Thomas Jodoin reviewed the Supreme Court decision, he concluded it would also invalidate Helena’s local fee.
“It had the effect of imposing a $16,000 or $17,000 hole in our budget, based on our current fee structure,” Taylor said.
The money from Helena’s fee went into the city general fund. Both Municipal Court and the city attorney’s office, which prosecutes municipal cases, are paid for with general fund money.
Taylor said this loss of funding is small enough that the city can cover it with its reserves this year. Leaders will make a fuller adjustment in next year’s budget process.
“That’s not a hole in the budget that we can’t cover in alternative ways,” he said.
But he and Jodoin said they’re concerned that a series of decisions like this has limited the tools that cities have available to provide funding for services like local courts and prosecutors.
“The ability to use those voted self-government powers contained in city charters has been eroded and is extremely limited,” said Taylor.
Municipal courts and justice courts share jurisdiction over misdemeanors established by state law. Jodoin said, in practice, Helena Municipal Court generally handles misdemeanors within the city limits and Lewis and Clark County Justice Court covers those outside the city.
Municipal courts also hear cases involving violation of city ordinances. Those cases will not be affected by the Supreme Court decision.
Jodoin said, without a local option to fund city court and prosecutors, they are limited by the decisions the state government makes.
“Basically, the Legislature has determined what amount of funding is appropriate for the local government to prosecute state law crimes, which defeats the whole idea of home rule,” he said.
Jodoin said, at this time, they are not planning to refund the fees they charged prior to this week. City leaders believe the court’s decision only requires them to stop the local surcharge going forward.