Financial concerns are mounting as Wharton County officials debate what is to become of the 23rd District Court later this year.
At present, the 23rd Court is under Judge Ben Hardin and includes Wharton, Matagorda and Brazoria counties, but Senate Bill 891, passed this week, will completely change how it operates.
Those financial responsibilities will rest later this year with Matagorda and Wharton counties, which has Wharton County Judge Phillip Spenrath highly concerned. He voiced those concerns during the Tueday commissioners court meeting.
“Brazoria County no longer wants the 23rd Judicial District Court,” Spenrath said. “Judge Hardin is usually here one or two days a month.”
During Wharton County Day on Feb. 12 in Austin, Spenrath spoke to Ross Giesinger, legislative director and general counsel to Sen. Lois W. Kolkhorst (R-Brenham), on the issue.
In a letter dated March 7 to Giesinger, Spenrath said, “Currently, Brazoria County pays approximately 80 percent of all courtroom administration expenses while Matagorda and Wharton each pay 10 percent,” the letter read.
Brazoria County currently funds 100 percent of the 23rd court’s coordinator salary.
Wharton and Matagorda counties pay $12,807 each.
With the passage of SB 891, Wharton County will be expected to foot 52 percent of the 23rd District Court’s operation and Matagorda County 48 percent, based on population.
Judge Randy Clapp’s 329th District Court, for example, costs as an example of salaries being paid to personnel. It totaled $310,181 in salaries including: a deputy district clerk, court bailiff, court reporter, court coordinator salary with benefits, and district judge’s juvenile supplement.
Now that SB 891 has passed, Spenrath warned of the increased spending that would go into effect Sept. 1, an estimated $210,505.
During the commissioners meeting, Spenrath added there were efforts to include Calhoun and Jackson counties as part of the 23rd District Court, but officials there declined.
Spenrath described an email from Hardin as “stern” that explained the counties needed to begin paying for the court on Sept. 1.
“Remember, we are in a calendar year; our budget is solid, it is done until Jan. 1, 2020,” Spenrath said. He said on Aug. 31, Brazoria County will shut their doors on the 23rd District Court and none of the employees will receive paychecks after Sept. 1.
“I don’t know where the money is going to come from,” Spenrath said. “I do know that on Jan. 1, we are going to have to come up with $210,000 that we currently don’t pay.”