Hermiston and Pendleton are looking to have the Umatilla County District Attorney’s Office take over prosecution of their misdemeanor crimes.

The move would shift cases from the municipal to the circuit courts of the Sixth Judicial District, cost each city at least $85,000 a year and take effect in the upcoming fiscal year if city councils give their OK. Savings from the plan are questionable, but city managers said money is not the primary driver.

The Hermiston City Council discussed the proposal during its meeting Monday night.

City Manager Ed Brookshier said municipal court costs have escalated in recent years. His draft 2013-2014 budget includes $95,000 for prosecution and $95,000 for a public defender. In 2010-2011, the city paid about $75,000 for prosecution services and about $42,000 for public defense.

Shifting the misdemeanors, such as disorderly conduct, harassment and some assaults, to the circuit court makes sense because the district attorney’s office has the staff and expertise to prosecute crimes and track offenders, Brookshier said.

“We think we can get a better return on investment though the district attorney’s office,” he said.

District Attorney Dan Primus said his office is on track to file about 1,900 cases this fiscal year, including at least four unrelated homicides. Hermiston and Pendleton generate about 800-1,000 misdemeanor cases a year, so tossing those into the mix would require more staff.

“There definitely would be some impact,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to do it with the resources I have right now.”

Each $85,000-per-year contract would pay for a full-time prosecutor and all the services the district attorney’s office provides, Brookshier said, such as the power of subpoena.

Pendleton City Manager Robb Corbett presented the idea to Pendleton City Council at a recent work session and has yet to schedule the topic for a city council meeting. He said he first wants to go over the proposal’s costs and savings with staff before releasing them to the public, but Pendleton is considering the same contract as Hermiston’s.

“So we’re moving in that direction,” Corbett said.

In addition to the costs, the city courts could lose revenue from fees, and police departments would probably see an uptick in overtime costs as officers spend more time in circuit court. Over time, though, the cities could realize some savings, possibly though the elimination of positions.

Roy Blaine, administrator of the circuit courts of Umatilla and Morrow counties, said adding the cases would have an effect on the docket, but how big is hard to pin down.

Municipal courts already send some cases to the state and most city court cases on appeal go to the circuit courts.

But any issue of a busier court might not matter much.

Blaine and Primus said Oregon law allows cities to move their misdemeanor cases to circuit courts without any hangups.

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Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

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