UNION GAP — Union Gap city officials say they will begin negotiating with Yakima County to take over management of municipal court services.
City Manager Rod Otterness projects the move would save at least $9,000 annually, but said the biggest savings would come in avoiding future facilities costs. Union Gap’s court has been operating out of temporary offices on Washington Avenue after City Hall was closed for mold infestation in 2012.
“There’s a slight revenue savings on paper, but really the decision would be driven by infrastructure costs we have not calculated for in necessary improvements in our court structure,” Otterness said Monday.
The court was moved to a former fire station, which Otterness said lacks appropriate space for witnesses or jury deliberation. Modifying the space could come at great cost to the city, he said.
But the city’s current municipal judge, retired prosecutor Bob Northcott, is skeptical of the decision and worries what it would mean for his contract. Northcott signed a four-year contract to become Union Gap municipal judge in January 2011 and said it isn’t supposed to end until at least December 2014.
“There are a lot of unanswered questions here,” Northcott said.
Northcott referred further questions to his attorney, Gary Lofland, who said there is no disagreement with the city at this time. However, Lofland said Northcott’s contract would not simply be “null and void” if the city signs a new agreement.
“Unless or until something changes, there is no dispute and Union Gap carries on with its court and contract,” Lofland said. “As far as I’m aware, it’s not voided just because they stopped operating the court.”
Otterness wouldn’t answer questions about what would happen to Northcott’s contract or the future employment of two court clerks in the event of a deal being reached between the city and county.
“Preliminary conversations are just that: They’re preliminary,” Otterness said. “You can’t negotiate these details unless you have the certainty of the City Council.”
Any decision on the future of the court would require further approval from the City Council, which on Monday unanimously approved the measure authorizing Otterness to explore an agreement.
Otterness said he commended the performance by Northcott and his staff over the last year as they dealt with the building transition.
“Bob has been a real workhorse for the municipal court system,” Otterness said.
There is precedent for Yakima County running small municipal courts: The county took over court operations from Grandview in 2007.