Monday, December 3, 2001
Agencies Seek Funds to Cover Increased Costs Due to Court Unification
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
The District Attorney’s Office is asking for more than $2 million to make up for what it claims are additional expenses imposed on it by court unification, an efficiency move that supporters said would save taxpayers millions of dollars.
In a request made through county Supervisor Michael Antonovich on tomorrow’s Board of Supervisors agenda, the district attorney is seeking $2.27 million to pay for 13 new lawyers and 16 support staff to handle felonies at courthouses that handled only misdemeanors and civil matters before unification.
The top budget official for the District Attorney’s Office said the only way prosecutors have been able to keep up with the opening of felony courtrooms around the county where once there had been only municipal courts was to shuttle around the county each day.
“This is not a beloved request,” Bureau of Management and Budget Director William Mangan told the MetNews. “I think that [county officials] just hope that we will kind of absorb the costs.”
Mangan said the new prosecutors and supervisors are needed at the former Alhambra, Beverly Hills and Inglewood municipal courthouses, and at the Airport Court, a new facility that absorbed felony cases previously heard in Santa Monica and Culver City.
Mangan said the costs of moving prosecutors among courthouses to fill gaps have not been calculated, but he added that it is not an efficient use of time for county-paid lawyers.
The request—which is likely to be continued along with other budget requests until Jan. 29—comes at a time when the county is grappling with a faltering economy and difficult budgeting decisions.
County Chief Administrative Officer David Janssen last month called for a new commitment to a hiring freeze first put in place in 1992 but frequently lifted over the last several years. Neither Janssen nor the board have yet called for budget cut recommendations from county departments, but some departments are already crafting contingency cut plans in anticipation of state budget cuts that will have an enormous impact on the state-dependent county balance sheet.
The District Attorney’s Office is not the only county agency expected to come forward with a request for more money due to unification of the 24 municipal courts with the Los Angeles Superior Court. Assistant Public Defender Robert Kalunian said his office, too, must hire more lawyers to keep up with unification and plans to ask for a $9 million budget increase, and the Alternate Public Defender’s Office likely is affected as well.
There may also be an impact on the Sheriff’s Department, which provides bailiffs in criminal courtrooms.
Unification is the product of a 1998 statewide constitutional amendment that gave courts the option to unify, but Gov. Gray Davis and Chief Justice Ronald George made it clear after the measure passed that courts failing to exercise their “option” would suffer serious financial consequences. The Los Angeles courts were among the last to take the step, finally unifying in January 2000.
That same year, the Judicial Council released a report that cited cost savings in many unified courts. But it did not include statistics for the Los Angeles court, which accounts for about a third of the state’s court budget and caseload.
To date, there has been no study showing cost savings in the Los Angeles Superior Court due to unification.
Assistant Presiding Judge Robert Dukes noted the court has been able to reduce administrative expenses by eliminating duplicate executive officers and other staff in the municipal courts. Although there has been no study, he said, the “figure that has been bandied about” for savings is “over a million and a half dollars.”
Dukes said unification will allow court officials to give each community a full-service court, with the ability to handle felonies and family law matters in addition to misdemeanors and the full array of civil cases.
“For example, we have been able to move felonies back in to Inglewood,” Dukes said.
But he noted that the recession may also slow the court’s plans.
Meanwhile, savings realized by the court may emerge as new costs on the county budget, such as the District Attorney’s Office bid for new lawyers.
The county formerly carried the bulk of responsibility for funding the Superior Court, but state law changes several years ago shifted the bulk of responsibility to the state, leaving the county with the duty to pay only for the building and maintenance of court facilities—plus the continuing duty to supply prosecutors and, for indigent defendants, defense counsel.
Kalunian said unification is proving less costly for his department than coordination, an interim measure that moved cases around the county in what remained distinct courts.
But he said his office still is supposed to serve in several locations where there are so few deputy public defenders that the office must declare “unavailability,” meaning the county must provide deputies from the Alternate Public Defender’s Office, or pay for appointed lawyers from defense panels.
That has happened with frequency in Compton, Long Beach, Pomona, West Covina, Lancaster, Inglewood, the central felonies unit, and two calendars in Torrance, Kalunian said.
“At least we have the safety valve of unavailability,” Kalunian said, a fall-back position not available to the District Attorney’s Office.
Kalunian placed the cost of adding sufficient lawyers at about $1 million.
But he declined to blame the court.
“The court did consult with us on all of their unification plans,” Kalunian said.
But the court’s foot-dragging on unification may have proved costly to the county. Mangan said the county set aside “a couple million dollars” during good economic times to help defray expenses caused by unification, but when the budget year passed and the judges still had not approved merger, “that contingency fund kind of disappeared.”
The impact of unification on the Sheriff’s Department is less clear. Bailiffs have been moved to courthouses that for the first time are handling felonies, but the county bills those costs to the court—which in turn gets paid by the state Judicial Council.
There is no guarantee that the Board of Supervisors, which is anxiously awaiting the latest word from the state on budget cuts, will grant the $2.27 million requested by the district attorney or the $1 million requested by the public defender.
But Mangan said that District Attorney Steve Cooley is placing a high priority on pushing for the additional funding.
“We have never asked the board before for any enhancement due to unification, but Mr. Cooley had the sense that this was an emerging, creeping need that has not been addressed,” Mangan said.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company