Cotter wants to keep Niles officePublished 7:37pm Thursday, September 6, 2012
ST. JOSEPH — Berrien County Prosecutor Art Cotter discussed his office’s presence in Niles Thursday with the board of commissioners’ administration committee.
Trying to wring $150,000 out of his $3.5 million budget, Cotter is weighing options to meet guidelines.
“I don’t want to close the Niles prosecutor’s office,” Cotter said, “politically or even more so to the convenience of local police officers and citizens. If I have to cut $150,000 there will be pain. I would have to eliminate the second APA (assistant prosecuting attorney) and a support staff person and $20,000 somewhere else. Essentially, I would have to bring one assistant back to St. Joseph and they would go to Niles for court. We’ve talked about the possibility of not trying jury trials down there — particularly felonies.”
Cotter said after preliminary examinations of evidence before felony cases are bound over for trial in St. Joseph, “I can spread those cases among my assistants in the main office and absorb” that workload.
“The problem in Niles is typified by what we’ve already done,” Cotter said. “A year or two ago I cut a support staff person. I’m sending my office manager and another support staff person down there every Friday. They alternate to help it keep caught up. There are other options we can talk about because I’ve been trying to think of everything I can. Another is keeping the Niles office open with one assistant if the court didn’t do felonies. Once a case is bound over at the prelim stage, it takes a lot of motion work. Felonies take up a lot of time, so maybe, one assistant could hold down the fort, but it would be a busy position to do warrants, walk-ins, misdemeanors and prelims. The only other option I can think of to meet the directive for $119,000 is (closing) the drug lab (at Andrews University in Berrien Springs). I think that’s a bad idea. If we closed the Niles office, police officers would have to come up to St. Joe, which would be a strain on them. What if they had to go to Grand Rapids every time they had a drug case to submit?”
Cotter opposed the judiciary’s decision to no longer select juries in Niles.
“Police and the prosecutor have to come to St. Joe, then they go back to Niles and put on evidence,” Cotter said. “There are probably two a month, which doesn’t seem like much, but the ones which do go are big and nasty, like (the) sexting (case) last year. That was really five cases and took a lot of work.”
“Law enforcement and public safety are number-one on my list of priorities,” Commissioner R. McKinley Elliott, administration committee chairman, said. “Scrutinizing these numbers is a healthy process, but we don’t want people losing their jobs. And I don’t want to be locked into a situation like Congress with automatic cuts to hit targets because they don’t have the collective courage to qualitatively analyze a budget. Decimate defense? That’s ridiculous. This is kind of like our defense budget. The county, at a crossroads with a functionally obsolete building, made a decision 10 years ago to increase the presence in Niles. Now (the South County Building) could be a primary courthouse for a lot of counties. This would cut into bone. In a $50 million general fund, $150,000 is real money, but like a plastic pail of sand from Warren Dunes. But it is significant in terms of the impact on your office.”
The committee voted to support the 2013 budget as presented.