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AB court reopens in debt's shadow

They stood one by one in front of the magistrate judge as Atlantic Beach Police Officers read off their misdeeds: the pot smokers, the public drunks, the stop-sign runners.

For the accused, it was a minute-long guilty plea, a fine of a couple hundred dollars. For the court itself, the municipal court of Atlantic Beach, it was the first court date in four months and a step in the right direction.

"We're still trying to find some documents that's floated back and forth," Judge Gerald Whitley told Atlantic Beach Police Chief Randy Rizzo during one first-day's administrative hiccup. "We'll get it worked out."

The previous town judge left in April to pursue a state Senate run, right at the beginning of the upheaval caused by the mayor and town manager's indictments and suspensions. Since then, officials estimate about 100 cases piled up on the docket, but even after Whitley hears all those cases, the challenge is just beginning.

The town still faces an unknown amount of debt relating to the mismanagment of its court accounts, the same alleged practices that led to indictments of the mayor and town manager in March. The debt runs so deep the town may even owe criminals money.

The debt

For every fine a town court collects on a ticket or criminal charge, slightly more than half actually belongs to the state. Interim Town Manager Charles Williams said that over the last year Atlantic Beach kept that money and spent it, rather than sending it to the state - part of the basis for March's misconduct-in-office charges against Mayor Irene Armstrong and then-Town Manager Marcia Conner, according to their indictiments.

Based on previous years' records, Williams estimates the unpaid amount to be between $30,000 and $40,000 - a figure that is actually good news, based on a recent state audit of court-related accounts. Because he could locate no records in the town offices, Williams originally thought the town owed the state for three years' of unpaid fines - an amount that could have been $150,000.

The state, however, had records showing payments in 2006 and 2007, leaving only 2008 unpaid.

"It's in better shape than I thought, in the sense that we don't owe three years," Williams said. "We only owe one year."

The same audit, however, shows the town owes an additional $10,736 to a different fund under its control: the victims' assistance account, which is largely used to defray victims' medical bills or to help them with transportation for court. That money has also been spent, Williams said, and must now be repaid.

The $30,000 or so owed to the state and the $10,000 owed to the victims' fund are the known debts. No jury trial in the town court has been held in six years, so looming over the other bills are six years' worth of bail bonds collected from defendants requesting trials that never happened.

Police Chief Randy Rizzo estimates that perhaps 150 cases over that six-year period went unheard, but no one has estimated how much the defendants paid in bonds. Because the unheard cases violate the defendants' rights to a speedy trial, the town must now dismiss them all - but it must also refund bond money to anyone who has a receipt for it.

No one has come forward demanding a bond refund yet, Williams said, but no one knows how many people will.

Outsourcing

Once the town clears its case backlog and repays the old debts, it must then decide how to handle the court in the future - part of the larger outsourcing debate already consuming the town. Should it seek its own judge and restart its own court once more, or should it seek a permanent relationship with a larger, outside court?

For now, Whitley will hear the cases. In exchange, the Horry County Magistrates Court will keep the local portion of the fines he levies, Williams said. The town will not pay Whitley or his staff a salary.

"I think that's very reasonable - generous, even," Williams said of Whitley's offer. "The town isn't making a bunch of money when the town has a judge. It's not a revenue producer for the town."

In 2005, the last audited year, the town court took in $64,000 in fines, but sent the state its portion of $39,000, the audit shows. All of the remaining $25,000 was spent on paying salaries for the judge and clerk, Williams said: "It's almost a wash."

The agreement with Whitley, however, is a temporary one, and it falls under the same basic principle Williams promotes of contracting out services to larger governmental units that can handle them more efficiently, and tying the contract down with a dedicated revenue stream. The judge uses his office and staff to hear the cases, and the local portion of the fines go directly through his office - reducing the possibility of mismanagement within the town in the future.

In recent conversations about a similar issue - the future of the Atlantic Beach Police Department - two of the town's four council members, Donnell Thompson and Retha Pierce, have recently objected to outsourcing. Both have argued that a police department is central to maintaining the autonomy of the town.

Thompson said Tuesday the court issue may be a different matter, and he needs to study it further before he forms his opinion. Pierce could not be reached for comment.

At the end of Tuesday's hour-long court session, when all the names had been called, the magistrate estimated he had settled 20 cases. In one small sign of progress, the next court date is July 29.

"Sitting in the courtroom is the easy part," Whitley said. "Going back and recreating to make sure everything is done properly - that's the hard part."

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