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County cuts threaten to close doors of mediation center

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Tuesday, Sep. 4, 2012, at 11:37 p.m.

For more than three decades, the Mediation Center of Wichita has tried to keep Sedgwick County residents from having to go to court to settle their disputes.

The county recently opted not to spend $8,000 to fund the center for next year, a move that could dump an additional 155 cases into small claims court if the nonprofit group is unable to find funding elsewhere. The $8,000 is the entirety of the center’s budget.

For now, Sedgwick County Chief Judge James Fleetwood is planning as though he’ll see those cases hit the courts.

“It will slow down the small claims docket significantly,” he said Tuesday. “We’ll see if the judges can absorb that extra 155.”

If not, Fleetwood said, he would have to look at hiring additional staff. That could cost more than the $8,000 struck from the county’s 2013 budget, although Fleetwood said it would be difficult to calculate how much the cost would be.

Center officials said they are hopeful they’ll be able get grants or private funding to keep the doors open after this year.

“We’re not going to disappear,” Executive Director Dennis McHugh said. “We’re going to go out and find something else.”

The county had funded the center since 2000, but it had to draw the purse strings tight on the 2013 budget in order to erase a $9.3 million deficit by the end of next year. Cuts hit most areas of county government and outside groups such as the center.

“I don’t want anyone to think I’m second-guessing the commission,” Fleetwood said. “Costs have to be reduced. That’s the horse they have to ride.”

Fleetwood and center officials said they hope the county will be able to fund the center in future budgets when the economy improves.

“It’s been a welcomed service,” Fleetwood said.

The center’s 15 mediators volunteer their time and there is no charge to clients.

The $8,000 is used to rent office space in the Wichita Bar Association’s building at 225 N. Market, buy office supplies and pay McHugh a small salary.

“I wouldn’t want to live off what I make,” said McHugh, who has another full-time job.

As a licensed mediation center, it is required by state law to have a physical address, and it can’t be at someone’s home, McHugh said.

The center opened in 1978 as the Neighborhood Justice Center and was initially funded by the Junior League of Wichita. Later, a national nonprofit provided money.

The center mediates about 230 cases a year, ranging from those headed for small claims court to stalking and domestic issues. A negotiated agreement is reached in 75 to 80 percent of the cases, said Trip Shawver, a Wichita lawyer who has volunteered as a mediator at the center for 28 years.

“Our mission is to keep peace in the community,” he said, adding that both parties have to agree to participate before the center will take on a case.

The majority of the cases come off the small claims court docket. The center handled 155 of those cases in 2011. Resolving cases through mediation goes beyond easing the court’s work flow.

“When we provide a way to work it out, they generally go away happier than if a judge rules,” Shawver said. “In mediation, the goal is to have two winners.”

Fleetwood said mediation allows people to avoid the emotional impact of arguing cases in court.

The center also handles about 20 stalking cases each year; Shawver said those rarely are stalking cases that bring up visions of someone lurking around a dark corner.

“Stalking is anything that annoys you,” he said. “It’s really a loose law.”

So that means the stalking docket gets filled with such cases as neighbors unable to get along or even students who get into a squabble, he said.

“I’m close to 100 percent on those,” Shawver said on settling stalking disputes.

The center also trains about 20 mediators each year. Many of those volunteer to help the center. Although there is a charge to take that training, Shawver is reluctant to see the center charge clients to raise funds.

“That would put a damper on things,” he said. “People are overjoyed and work real hard when they realize we’re doing it for them and not making any money.”

The initial 2012 county budget had dropped funding for the center, but the county commissioners restored it. The proposed 2013 county budget also didn’t include money for the center, but it wasn’t restored when the commission approved the budget last month.

“We’ll limp our way through,” Shawver said. “We’ll find something someplace. I think it’s important we keep the center alive.”

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