Central Texas Alternative Dispute Resolutions officials Walt Krudop, left, and Anna Bartkowski, right, at Hays County Commissioners Court last month. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
After a rocky start, including fewer cases than expected and a cash infusion from the county this summer, The Hays County Dispute Resolution Center secured its second year of funding from Hays County commissioners.
The commissioners court voted 4-1 to approve a new contract with the Hays County Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) that includes $20,000 in funding. The new contract will be in force until Sept. 30, 2011, unless otherwise terminated.
The DRC, whose legal name is Central Texas Alternative Dispute Resolution, Inc., offers low-cost mediation services. Anyone can use the DRC if the monetary amount in dispute is no more than $50,000 and the combined income of the disputants is not more than about $60,000. The DRC also offers mediator training and volunteer opportunities.
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) cast the dissenting vote against using the DRC for another year. Conley also cast the lone vote against the first contract with the DRC.
Anna Bartkowski, the DRC’s only full-time employee, will receive a salary increase. Bartkowski told the court she started out last year at $36,000. Bartkowski’s salary is now $45,000, not including $3,450 in associated payroll costs such as taxes. The DRC projects her salary and associated payroll costs to be $51,700 in fiscal year (FY) 2012 if the court renews the contract.
Conley, Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) and Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) expressed concern about increasing the DRC executive director salary at a Sept. court meeting.
“That is a 14 percent increase from the current $44,303 to the third year $51,700, and (you are) asking the county to give additional supplement,” Conley said to DRC officials at the Sept. 21 meeting. “We all know y’all were awarded this contract originally on a noncompetitive basis, so that gives me additional reservations along those lines. The initial intention of the DRC was to try to alleviate some pressures on our courts. And that has been slow in the making. To your credit, you have diversified to other services that y’all are trying to provide to the county.”
DRC President Walt Krudop offered to give commissioners information regarding executive director salaries of comparable DRCs at a later date.
“It’s way under market, in my opinion, in terms of what an executive director of a DRC should be making, especially since that’s inclusive of all the taxes that go along with it, so that is not a concern for me,” said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley).
Sumter said her only concern was that in the DRC may need to hire another employee in its third year of operation.
By the Sept. 21 meeting, the court had received voluminous public comment regarding the then-proposed FY 2011 county budget. The DRC and county 2011 fiscal years began Oct. 1. Most members of the public who offered in-person comment before the court opposed planned salary increases for county elected officials and other employees.
On Sept. 21, the court voted unanimously to eliminate raises for elected official salaries from the then-proposed FY 2011 budget. Later that month, the court eliminated cost of living raises for all county employees, except those involved in the currently-pending law enforcement collective bargaining agreement. Commissioners approved an FY 2011 county budget with no raises for elected officials, yet-to-be-determined raises for county law enforcement and one percent, merit-based raises for other county employees.
Commissioners allocated $20,000 in start-up funds to the DRC in September 2009. They authorized another $10,000 in emergency funds in June 2010, at the request of DRC representatives, who predicted a $7,000 deficit in the last quarter. Krudop told the court last month that the DRC had spent “a little less than $5,000” of the emergency $10,000 allocation.
In September 2009, Bartkowski told the court that the DRC could subsist solely on filing fees and grants in its fourth year of operation.
In addition to funding from the commissioners court, the DRC collects $15 per filing on all civil cases filed in district and county courts and $5 per filing on certain civil cases filed in justice of the peace courts.
The DRC spent $68,518 and received $75,001 (including $30,000 from county commissioners) in FY 2010. According to the DRC, revenues for this year, FY 2011, will be $70,163 and expenses will amount to $75,393. The $70,163 includes the $20,000 already allocated from the county. The DRC projects $78,807 in expenses and $73,000 in revenue for FY 2012. The $73,000 includes $20,000 from the county commissioners.
“The Pro Forma is a conservative view of finances if things remain status quo,” said Bartkowski in a July 28 email to Sumter. “It does not account for growth in either filing or programming, nor does it account for additional revenue for grants/fundraising.”
Though DRC administrators originally anticipated handling 25 cases per month, Bartkowski said last week that the DRC has mediated 32 cases, 79 percent of which settled all or some of the issues in controversy. Bartkowski said the DRC has 11 cases pending mediation. Bartkowski said that, from its inception through the end of third quarter 2010, the DRC received 56 cases referred from courts, agencies or community organizations.
“While it (the DRC) has been slow to be embraced by some of our justice seats, that was anticipated, and we looked at that,” said Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) said to DRC officials last month. “I think the experience of other DRCs around the state has shown that the bench is slow to embrace, but eventually does after a three- or four-year period. So, I think there’s value in this whole program for our county, and I really appreciate the work y’all do. I think it is important in times like these that we have an option for folks to stay out of the court system.”
Last year, County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Anna Boling said family and civil mediation on the open market usually costs $150-$200 per hour at a four-hour minimum. Last year, Bartkowski said non-subsidized mediation can cost from $200-$250 an hour, or $400 for half a day and $900 for a full day. Boling worked as a mediator, was involved in establishing the DRC, and sits on DRC’s advisory board. San Marcos attorney Robert Updegrove, Boling’s opponent in the county Court at :aw No. 1 race, also is a mediator.
The DRC is planning to offer more services this fiscal year.
“The family law committee of the DRC’s board of directors has been working diligently with a team of local family law attorneys on the development of (a) family law program to provide resources and assistance to low-income Hays County residents who are seeking to resolve issues of divorce and visitation/access,” Bartkowski said. “We are seeking to expand our law enforcement mediation efforts by collaborating with law enforcement agencies in conflict resolution training and referrals for mediation. We also anticipate working with the county’s courts and clerks to develop the county’s settlement week.”
Last fiscal year, the DRC did not take most family law cases referred to it. The family law cases mostly involved divorces. On Sept. 21, Bartkowski told the court that 40 percent of people filing divorce cases in 2011 had no legal representation.
“That’s a pretty significant number,” Bartkowski said. “So, what that says to us is that there’s a number of people trying to navigate the legal system on their own. What we would like to do is be able to provide resources to this population of people and not encourage them to go it alone, but rather, give them the resources they need to know a little bit more about the process and help them to get back into the limited scope representation of attorneys in the area.”
Hays County Assistant District Attorney Mark Zuniga said he primarily works Child Protective Services (CPS) cases. Zuniga said his office has used the DRC for a number of mediations. Zuniga said the DRC has not charged his office for services. Zuniga said mediation gives parents greater say in CPS cases and allows families to find “creative solutions” not available in the court system.
“I feel like the families I deal with benefit greatly from the Dispute Resolution Center,” Zuniga told commissioners on Sept. 21. “I’ve been enormously pleased. I know the two of them (Krudop and Bartkowski, who are trained mediators) keep their cool even when I will lose it, and are very good at helping us reach resolution. So, at this point, there’s been a great deal value and some savings of money — I haven’t calculated it since the last time I did that, but we’re still seeing a great deal of value to the county, generally, and the families that I deal with in particular.”Email | Print