House committee considers court costs to fund sheriffs’ pensions | State News

JEFFERSON CITY — A proposed constitutional amendment could add a $7 fee to each civil case filing to fund retirement for county sheriffs.

The House Pensions Committee held a public hearing Wednesday on HJR 136. The resolution proposes charging a $7 fee for the initial filing of any civil case in the state. Money from these fees would be deposited into the sheriff’s retirement fund. If passed by the legislature, the measure would be voted on by Missouri residents in November.

“The duties of our sheriffs are very broad, very important to our state … and they are the first to be sued, the first to take all the hits when things happen,” said the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Barry . Hovis, R-Cape Girardeau.

The fee is expected to bring in up to $2.2 million annually by fiscal year 2024. The resolution would also add a provision allowing lawmakers to increase the fee if $7 isn’t enough.

The proposal follows a decision last year by the Missouri Supreme Court, in which the justices struck down a similar arrangement. Since 1983, the state had charged a $3 surtax on every circuit court criminal case, but in 2021, judges ruled the charge an unconstitutional charge on court access.

The case arose after two Kansas City drivers, charged with speeding tickets in 2017, disputed the charges. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that fees charged by the court must be “reasonably related to the expenses of administering justice”.

Hovis said his proposal would amend the constitution to allow fees and compensate for funds lost by the Supreme Court decision.

The court’s decision put the sheriff’s retirement fund in “an untenable position unless we find a new source of funding,” he said. “I think that’s something we need to look at to replace what they lost in this recent decision.”

In opposition to the resolution, Scott Walterbach, president of the Missouri Creditors Bar, Inc., agreed with the Supreme Court’s decision that fees should reflect the costs of running the court.

“We agree that law enforcement and their retirement is a good cause,” Walterbach said. “We are primarily concerned about the source of the funds.”

Walterbach argued that even small increases in court fees could discourage individuals from filing complaints and affect how lawsuits are settled. He also noted that the costs are often not reimbursed by the judgment debtor, which means that the “winners” of the case will always end up bearing the cost.

Court fees vary by county and can range from $30 to over $100 per filing. A divorce in Boone County, for example, can cost up to $162.50 in fees.

Several committee members questioned why the sheriff’s fund shouldn’t just be added to the Missouri Local Government Employees Retirement System (LAGERS), a retirement system for many local government employees. Some questioned whether combining the programs would save administrative costs and increase revenue for the sheriff’s retirement fund.

“It seems like it would be an easier solution, just to make them part of the system that’s already there,” said Rep. Dale Wright, R-Farmington.

But supporters of the measure said that even if the sheriff’s fund eventually became part of LAGERS, there would still be a funding shortfall of about $2 million.

“We’ve got a hole here of about $2 million, one way or another,” said Chuck Hatfield, an attorney with the sheriff’s pension system. “There are of course different ways to deal with it. I don’t think, mathematically, that just combining them with other people will solve your funding problem.

Representatives also questioned whether the sheriff’s fund receives revenue from employee contribution or investment. Hatfield said there have been discussions about it, but there have been no employee contributions to the program since the court fee system was implemented in the 1980s.

He said the purpose of the resolution is to ask the public to “continue the process that we have had in place since the 1980s.”

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