Eau Claire County court system expansion making moves

EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- It’s been more than 25 years since Eau Claire County expanded its judicial system by adding another branch.

As the number of caseloads continues to grow each year, officials say the expansion is overdue, while county board members say they're not ready to foot the bill just yet.

The latest branch added to Eau Claire County’s judicial system, branch number 5, was first served by Judge Paul Lenz back in 1994.

Over 25 years later, caseloads are growing each year, and county court officials say it’s time for the system to grow with them.

“You know, all the counties in Wisconsin have a need and so you have to wait until you’re up on the list in order for it to actually go anywhere and we're at that juncture right now,” says Susan Schaffer, Eau Claire County Clerk of Circuit Courts.

From behind the bench, Judge Michael Schumacher says the idea to expand to a 6th branch is not only to lessen the load for the county employees, but to help the people in the county.

“The citizens of Eau Claire County have got a right to have speedy access to the courts and with the back logs we have right now, that's a difficult thing,” says Judge Schumacher.

While Eau Claire’s need for another judge and courtroom is evident, the process isn’t cut-and-dry.
“No county can get an additional judge unless the legislature passes a bill approving appointment of new judges,” explains Judge Schumacher.

On Monday, the proposed 6th branch was brought to the Eau Claire County Board's Finance and Budget Committee.

Committee chair, Stella Pagonis says Governor Tony Evers is proposing 8 more judges in his next biennial budget.

Judge Schumacher says he's optimistic Eau Claire County will fit the bill, so it’s then up to the county to foot the $850,000 bill for the brand new court room.

“The commitment has been made by Eau Claire County,” says Pagonis. “It's in the budget and we're prepared to move forward with it, there's no question that we're prepared to move forward.”

Before giving the go-ahead to begin renovations of the court room, the committee says it needs a better sense of assurance from the legislature that a 6th judge would be approved.

While the confidence remains high that Eau Claire County will be included in the legislation to add another judge, county board members stress the appointment isn't guaranteed.

The Finance and Budget Committee will be discussing renovation start dates at its April meeting.