Iowa has 99 counties and, except for two counties, one courthouse in each city dedicated to serving as the county seat.
In most of the rural communities, courthouses dominate the town square. Some were built before the 20th century and most show something we would not see today. They are magnificent structures because, back then, we were proud of ourselves and showed it in our public facilities.
I wonder what tales they could tell if their walls could talk. The scandals, the disputes, the arguments over wills or marriages. The criminals caught, the conflicts between neighbors resolved. The nights the teenagers drove around the square having won the homecoming game and the atmosphere of gaiety as the 4th of July was celebrated.
But I bet the windows in 30 of those buildings shook a little bit this month.
The Iowa Legislature, in attempting to meet another budget shortfall, considered cutting funding for the judiciary, the third branch of our state government. Not only did they consider reducing the funding, the proposed cuts were so deep the state court administrator estimated to absorb the reduction 30 county seat courthouses would have to be closed.
Here is the irony of that proposal. The judicial system, according to Stephen R. Eckley, writing in the Iowa Lawyer, received $175 million to provide service in 99 counties. “With the collection of fines, fees and court costs,” Eckley wrote, “and the diversion programs that enable individuals not to go into the correctional facilities, the judicial branch not only paid for itself, it made money for the state.”
The savings from the system amount to about an estimated $30 million and the costs and fees generated another $150 million.
Fortunately, for now it appears the crisis has been averted. But it will surely come up again, and it is probably a good idea to examine why this is a bad idea.
Take, for example, one of the counties that would be on the hit list: Grundy. The sheriff has 11 deputies, the department provides police protection to all the communities in the county except Grundy Center. Close the courthouse and those deputies become, for all practical purposes, taxi cab drivers, transporting prisoners from the jail to Waterloo and back. Plus, when their testimony is needed, they will be sitting in a courtroom 30 miles from the ground they are supposed to patrol.
But it is not just the expense to the county budgets that are involved and the crime prevention deputies provide. If you want a modern state, you need an efficient judicial system business and industry can turn to for a quick and fair resolution of their disputes.
Nor can we overlook the human costs. We are talking about laying off between 60 and 90 people, who make, on average of, between $40,000 and $50,000 a year. Gone with their job loss is the health insurance for their families and their IPERS pension. After they draw their 26 weeks of unemployment, I don’t believe the community is better financially when we see those former public servants working for $10 an hour at a convenience store.
There is also something to be said for having the community itself enforcing the law. I can’t believe the Farm Bureau is going to be happy having their members drive to an urban center to resolve a fence line dispute between two farmers.
Lawyers move to towns with county seats and lend their expertise to local undertakings like school boards, city councils and service clubs. They may become a one day a week office in towns without the judges and magistrates.
It would be my suggestion that if you want to save your small county courthouse, tell your legislator not to put it on the chopping block come budget time. I urge you to do it now because before this session ends, the governor wants another tax cut to the tune of $1.7 billion.