YORK – The first step has been taken toward having video conferencing capabilities in the York County District Courtroom.
After a conversation with Clerk of the District Court Sharilyn Steube, York County Attorney Christopher Johnson and Sheriff Paul Vrbka, the York County Commissioners voted unanimously to sign off on a quote from the state that will ultimately result in the installation of the technological equipment.
Steube explained to the commissioners that the quote was for $26,000. The amount in her budget for the project was $14,000, based on an earlier estimate she had gotten from the state.
“We have money in the county’s drug fund that possibly could be considered to cover the remainder of the cost that is not covered by the district court budget,” said York County Attorney Christopher Johnson, who is the administrator of that account. “We could use money taken from drug dealers to do this, if the federal officials say we can.”
Cash determined to be drug buy money, when successfully seized, is then distributed in a number of ways. If it is considered to be a state/local case, 50 percent of the seized money is distributed to the school districts in the county (where it was seized) and the other 50 percent is distributed to drug funds associated with the different entities involved in the seizure (county, city, state). This is the fund to which Johnson was referring.
“This project would bring our courtrooms into this century with current technology and save the taxpayers money because we wouldn’t have to pick up inmates in jails all over the state or in other states to come back here for three minutes of certain court hearings,” Johnson said. “Those hearings could then be done via video conferencing. It would save money in manhours, travel costs, etc. Not only would it save money, it would also keep those individuals away from the public.”
Steube also noted video conferencing could save major funds when it comes to utilizing interpreters – rather than traveling here, they could do their work via video.
“For an example, we had a defendant who needed to have a language interpreter from the Philippines,” Johnson said. “The closest interpreter was out of state. If that case would have gone to trial, it would have involved travel costs for two interpreters (so they can provide breaks for one another), lodging costs and more for several days. Last week, we had another issue where an interpreter was needed, for another such language, who was far away.”
“Can a defendant demand being brought here and not want to do video conferencing?” Commissioner Randy Obermier asked.
Johnson said he was informed that proceedings for plea changes, arraignments and sentencings would still have to be done in person. Hearings in which video conferencing would be used would be for things like bond reviews, pre-trial motions, name changes for inmates, inmate divorces – “situations, hearings that they (the inmates) asked for. So if they fail to appear, that is on them.”
Sheriff Vrbka noted that the availability of video conferencing would save an incredible amount of time and expense – for example, last week, sheriff’s personnel spent multiple hours on the road bringing a female to York County for a bond review which lasted minutes and she bonded out in the end.
“If this could be done with video conferencing, the savings would be a lot,” Sheriff Vrbka said.
Commissioner Bill Bamesberger said he would rather see the money for the project come from the drug fund and from the data processing fund (rather than from district court). “We never know how much we are going to have to pay to outside defense attorneys and I’d like that money to stay in the district court budget for that.”
It was also noted that this conversation only pertained to district court – not county court. It was noted that video conferencing will also be pursued in the county court in the near future and the commissioners said they would like more information as to how that project will be funded regarding the county’s share and the state’s share.
Back to the district court project, Bamesberger said, “I’d rather see Sharilyn (Clerk of District Court Steube) not use her budget for this and we use data processing to cover what the drug fund won’t cover.”
“Where did this idea come from?” asked Commissioner Kurt Bulgrin. “I know it’s been talked about before, I just wondered how it started.”
“It was brought forward by all of us as a way for cost savings,” Steube responded.
“There is also a push from the judiciary to bring us into this century with technology,” Johnson said, “for us to be consistent with other larger counties. There is a big push to get this equipment up and running.”
The commissioners asked how much money is currently in the county’s drug fund – Johnson said there is about $46,000 in that fund, “assuming the federal officials say it is OK for it to be used for this. And again, that’s money we seized from drug dealers.”
Steube added that by signing the acceptance of the quote from the state would simply start the process – payment for that project wouldn’t happen for quite some time. That means there would likely be plenty of time to determine if the drug fund money could be used and how much would have to be accessed from other funds whether it be from district court or data processing.
“We have the money, it’s sitting in an account for which the county attorney is the administrator,” Johnson explained again. “This is sort of an out-of-the-box purchase and we will have to reach out to them (federal officials) to make sure it is allowed.”
The commissioners authorized Steube to sign the agreement with the state.