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New judge considered for Sawyer County, bringing budget concerns

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HAYWARD, WI -- As Sawyer County, Wisconsin battles the opioid crisis, their one and only judge is looking for some help.

The state could offer a solution soon, but the process is costly, and after more than two years of discussion, a decision still hasn't been made by county officials.

Judge John Yackel is the only judge in Sawyer County, which he says has the busiest court system workload in the state of Wisconsin.

"We have been doing everything we can to be as efficient as we can, my court reporters hands are swollen at the end of the day, we have human limitations here," Judge Yackel said.

Fortunately, for Yackel, help could be coming. Governor Tony Evers is expected to sign a bill next month allocating 12 new judges to counties in need. It's expected that Sawyer County will be considered.

"We've had so many meth cases and so many heroin deaths in the county. We need this judicial resource so we can start having more judicial time to develop drug courts, develop better treatment methods," Yackel said.

In order to receive a new judge, a new courtroom must be built within the next 3 years.

County board members say that project could cost anywhere from $4 million to $15 million to build, and an extra $300,000 to $400,000 to staff and operate.

Board chairman Tweed Shuman says that would be a tight squeeze for the county's budget.

"There's only so much money, levy limits have been frozen, and we have programs and services now that we're struggling to continue. So to build this and operate this is a big venture," Shuman said.

The Sawyer County Board signed and approved a resolution in 2017 affirming the need for a second circuit court judge, but a decision to build the courtroom still hasn't been made.

While the board does believe a new judge could be beneficial, they're worried they'll have to cut treatment programs to help fund it.

They are also looking at how finding the money could affect taxpayers, including a potential referendum.

"We're going to do our due diligence right now to come up with all of the options and alternatives, and then give it to the people. What would you like to do? Is this something that you're going to need and that you're willing to pay for?" Shuman said of Sawyer County taxpayers.

Judge Yackel says while it is a costly process, it could offer solutions to the high incarceration rate in Sawyer County, thus saving money in the long run.

"If you want access to the court system, you want the second judge. If you want a safe community that is responsive to the drugs coming in, you want a second judge. If you don't want the second judge, then you have to answer, why are those things not all that important to address?" Yackel said.

Governor Evers is expected to sign the bill allocating new judges in March.

In order to be eligible for a second judge, board members say Sawyer County has to break ground on a new courtroom by early Fall, and the space must be ready by May 2023.

Jenna Wells

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