Hays County Commissioners Will Conley, left, and Karen Ford, right, at last week’s meeting of the commissioners court. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
Revenue shortfalls and small case loads have plagued the Hays County Dispute Resolution Center (DRC), which was started last September to take some strain off the county’s court system and give low-income residents an inexpensive way to resolve civil disputes.
Hays County Commissioners unanimously agreed last week to allocate $10,000 to keep the county’s struggling dispute resolution center alive at least until the budget year’s end.
In a presentation before the commissioners court last week, the DRC anticipated being in the red for the next three months.
Though DRC administrators originally anticipated handling 25 cases per month, the organization has mediated 21 cases since its inception and is handling seven pending mediations. Anyone can use the DRC’s services, provided the dollar amount in dispute is not too large (the general guideline is $50,000) and the combined income of the disputants is not a great amount (the guideline is $60,000). Judges can order some civil cases to mediation.
“Three out of five of our justice (of the peace) courts have sent cases to us,” said Hays County DRC Director Anna Bartkowski, though she declined to specify which ones.
Bartkowski said she has no explanation as to why more judges are not ordering cases to be mediated by the DRC. Bartkowski said cases otherwise eligible for DRC’s mediation services can linger on court dockets for months in litigation, though it typically takes no longer than one DRC mediation session to settle a case, she said.
“We have had a couple of cases out of a judge’s court that we mediated for five hours and they still didn’t settle, and so they had to go back to court,” Bartkowski said. “If they don’t settle, then they just go right back into the court and the judge hears the case. So, probably, there have been a couple of instances in which mediation was not as effective as it could have been. However, that being said, even with the cases that don’t settle in mediation, the parties have filled out evaluation reports that indicate that they are very happy that they went through the process, anyhow. So, the process of mediation is really helpful even if a settlement is not reached. In fact, 100 percent of our respondents have said they would use mediation again and that they find the process to be helpful and the mediators to be qualified and professional.”
County commissioners allocated $20,000 in the FY 2010 budget for the DRC. The DRC receives $15 per filing on all civil cases filed in district and county courts and $5 per filing on all civil cases filed in justice of the peace courts, except suits filed by the county, suits for delinquent taxes, condemnation proceedings and proceedings under the Texas Mental Health Code. The DRC charges $50 per party for a half-day mediation.
The DRC last week reported revenue shortfalls of $7,236 in ineligible filing fees, $5,774 in uncollected eligible filing fees, and a $6,840 mediation income shortfall.
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley), who cast the lone vote against the creation of the DRC last September, said the organization’s revenue shortfalls were “predictable” and said its administrators could have more accurately calculated the number of civil court cases eligible for filing fee collection. Conley said the DRC does not have enough “buy-in” from judges.
“That’s a reason for the shortfall — not many cases have been recommended to the dispute resolution center, and that’s one way in which it’s supposed to generate revenue and take workloads off our court system,” Conley said. “With all that being said, they’re also doing a positive thing and it’s natural to have growing pains this early on with a new service. So, that’s why I voted for the $10,000 bridge, to play it out some more, see how it evolves and develops and then evaluate where we are and measure the success of the service.”
Bartkowski attributed the organization’s predicament to 1) its inability to collect filing fees from cases filed in district and county courts by governmental entities, 2) the inability of the new filing fee system to be immediately functional and, 3) a shortfall in revenues due to a smaller-than-anticipated caseload.
DRC administrators report a 75 percent settlement rate, less-than anticipated start-up expenditures, and under-budget expenditures from January-June.
Conley praised the DRC’s 75 percent settlement rate. Conley said it is too soon to determine whether the organization is likely to continue to exist next budget year.
“I think we have good professionals working at the dispute resolution center,” Conley said. “They seem to be very competent, and so we’ll just see how it develops.”
The DRC is administered by Central Texas Alternative Dispute Resolution, a 501(c)3 organization created upon the recommendation of a steering committee appointed almost two years by Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley). County Court at Law No. 1 Judge Anna Martinez Boling is a member of the steering committee.
“It’s not that (the DRC is) not getting mediation work because judges don’t want to give them mediation work,” Boling said. “They’re not getting as much mediation work as they would like because it’s just not there.”
Boling said judges who suggest or order mediation allow disputants to choose their own mediators most of the time, which means they are not as likely to choose the DRC’s services. Boling said parties sometimes ordered to mediation are not eligible to receive the DRC’s services. Boling said the DRC cannot rely on court orders or referrals for new cases.
“I think the more people who get know the DRC and know that it’s there, and what services it provides, I think it will do well,” Boling said. “I would be very disappointed if it didn’t. But I think it will. I think it’s got a very good chance.”
Boling said she suggested to some of her probate case disputants that they use mediation. Boling said the disputants agreed and chose their own mediators, and were not eligible for the DRC’s services because there was a large estate in dispute. Boling said she could recall a judge ordering mediation only once in her 15 years as an attorney.Email | Print