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Fourth judge means extra costs for county

Adding a fourth circuit judge in St. Croix County means adding a fourth court -- complete with staff and equipment.

Current judges met with the County Board Finance Committee last week to assure the county is on track to furnish chambers and hire a judicial assistant before the fourth judge is seated Aug. 1.

The plan is to have a new judicial assistant in the office by July 1 to get the judge's office and calendar organized, said Judge Scott Needham. He suggested office equipment and furniture be ordered early in 2008 to assure it arrives in time.

The county's fourth judgeship was among seven new judges approved by the Wisconsin Legislature in November. Elections will be held in April.

While the state pays the judge, the county is responsible for providing and equipping offices and paying a judicial assistant and court clerk.

Finance Director Michelle Pietrick said the state provides some financial support for courts, but she hasn't received details of those amounts yet.

Because the Legislature hadn't approved the judgeship when the County Board adopted its 2008 budget, supervisors didn't specifically budget money for this purpose. Instead, they agreed to reserve $100,000 of the general fund balance for expenses related to adding the fourth judge.

"The relationship between the judicial assistant and the judge is critical," said Needham. Although the new judge won't take office until Aug. 1, Needham said that person will have the final say on choosing a judicial assistant.

Pietrick said the County Board should amend its budget to put the new court expenses in the court budget.

But County Board Chairman Buck Malick suggested that could be confusing.

"Doing a budget amendment might be interpreted by people on the street as we didn't plan for it, when we did in fact plan for it," he said.

Needham said having another judge will increase logistical and security problems.

Because there is limited space to assemble juries, jurors often congregate in the halls now, he said.

He told of observing jurors and litigants mingling in the halls.

"I walked through the hallway and didn't know who was who," said Needham, noting that attorneys could very well have been visiting with prospective jurors as they waited for court to start.

The Finance Committee will continue discussions on court finances when it meets in January.