Technology improvements drive court cost increase

LISBON – People using the county’s court system will pay a bit more to do so – $13 to be exact – starting April 1.

Acting on the recommendation of the Columbiana County Clerk of Courts office, county Common Pleas Court Judge C. Ashley Pike issued a court order doubling two court fees used solely for maintaining and upgrading the computer system that services the courts and clerk’s office.

“It’s just what with the cost of computerization and technology, we have to pass it on as a user fee. If you are using the courts, you will pay it,” said Shane Patrone, chief deputy clerk of courts.

The court order raised the common pleas court legal research/computerization fee from $3 to $6, and the clerk of court’s computerization fee from $10 to $20. The increases were made possible after the state legislature passed a bill raising the fee ceiling on what counties can charge. While the fees will increase the overall costs of a court case, they will be added as court costs at the end of a case instead of being tacked onto the filing fee. Patrone said they did this to minimize the upfront financial burden for people filing lawsuits.

“The end result is the court cases are going up $13 per case, but it’s not going to be in the filing fee,” he said.

The legal research fee for the common pleas court generated $5,004 last year, while the clerk’s computerization fee raised $43,400 in 2012. In addition, officials are also raising the fee charged for performing certain services, such as issuing bonds, notices, court writs and subpoenas, from $2 to $3. The extra dollar will go to the clerk for computerization.

Patrone said the increases are needed to keep pace with the high cost of maintaining and upgrading the clerk’s computer operations, which includes not only the clerk’s office, but common pleas and municipal court and their staff.

He said they replace desktop computers every three to five years, and last year $15,000 was spent to replace the personal computers at municipal court. Computer and other equipment upgrades planned for this year are expected to cost $20,000. Maintenance and tech support run another $30,000 to $40,000 annually, and the fees are also used to pay a portion of the salary of systems administrator, Ben Black.

“We’re just trying to keep up with the technology the best we can, and that’s a credit to Tony,” said Patrone, whose boss is Clerk of Courts Anthony Dattilio. “He wants us to keep up to date.”

Patrone said being able to raise the needed money with user fees saves them from passing the costs directly on to taxpayers by asking county commissioners for the money.

“With the cost of technology, we just don’t have the ability to expect commissioners to come up with the funds,” he said. “Anytime we can put an increase in the form of a user fee, we do. It takes the burden off the taxpayer.”

Patrone said the fee increase will be needed over the next 12 months as they prepare to borrow $500,000 to replace their current operating system with one that will allow for e-filing and for the public to view and download documents from their home computer, for a fee.