Athens County Municipal Court Judge Todd Grace has asked that his 2016 budget be increased by $60,000-$70,000 for pay increases for his staff as well as the development of a diversion program.

Grace approached Athens City Council with his requests on Monday. He started his term as municipal court judge at the beginning of this month, replacing retiring judge William Grim.

After taking office, Grace said he reviewed the compensation of the court’s employees and found that five employees are making between $13-$14 per hour, a wage that Grace said is below the norm for the positions.

Grace asked to have money put into his budget to allow him to increase those employees’ salaries to $15 per hour. Plus he said that much of the remaining staff is undercompensated for their experience. He said he wants to give them reasonable raises too this year while working to improve their wages over the coming years.

“For the work they’re doing, they deserve more,” Grace said.

He estimated that he would need $30,000 to cover the pay raises, with most going to the employees who are currently earning $14 or less per hour. Grace also said he plans to make the raises retroactive to Jan. 1.

In addition to the pay raises, Grace requested another $30,000-$40,000 to pay someone to establish a new diversion program for municipal court. He said currently, the court only offers a diversion program for underage drinking and allied offenses.

“That is all that is eligible for diversion in the municipal court,” Grace said.

Grace pointed out that Athens County Common Pleas Court, which deals with more serious offenses, offers a diversion program for non-violent first offenders. He said that the goal of a diversion program is to divert people away from criminal behavior and that the programs are successful.

If an offender successfully completes the diversion program, they are eligible to have their criminal records sealed so that it doesn’t cause problems with employment in the future.

“We have a very young population that get into a little bit of trouble, hopefully just once, and we want to make it possible so that they are not going to have to suffer with their careers later on,” Grace said.

Grace said it just makes sense to have a diversion program for lower offenses. For instance, if a person is charged with theft of $1,000 or more, they are sent to Common Pleas Court and would be eligible for the diversion program.

“We don’t have that program in municipal court so if you’re charged for (theft of) less than $1,000, you get a conviction for a theft offense, which is a crime of dishonesty, which can then impact jobs for basically everyone,” he said. “I don’t think it equitable.”

Grace said he would need between $30,000-$40,000 to pay someone to run the diversion program. He said he’d be willing to pay more for the right employee. In the long run, Grace said the program will pay for itself through diversion fees paid by offenders.

Some Council members expressed concern about the proposed retroactivity of pay increases for Grace’s current employees. Mayor Steve Patterson emphasized that the pay raises would only go back a few weeks to the beginning of January.

“The judge has the authority to establish compensation for his employees outside of City Council,” said Service-Safety Director Paula Horan Moseley.

Council is expected to introduce legislation next week to fulfill Grace’s financial requests. Athens Deputy Auditor Laura Krieder said the money would come from the city’s general fund.

sbrumfield@athensmessenger.com; Twitter @SaraBmessenger.

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