Friday, July 31, 2009
AOC Diverts $159 Million to Aid in Closing Budget Gap
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The Judicial Council of California yesterday announced that it had approved the reallocation of $159 million in special funds to offset cuts to the trial court operations budget.
Officials said that the funds will address, on a one-time basis, a portion of the court funding cuts and unfunded growth costs for court security, employee retirement, dependency counsel, and the court interpreter program to help close the estimated $414 million funding gap the state’s judiciary is facing for this fiscal year.
SEIU Local 721—representing Los Angeles Superior Court’s court reporters, court services assistants, administrative assistants and court supervisors—and AFSCME Local 575—which represents the Los Angeles court’s clerks and paralegals—have been calling on the Administrative Office of the Courts for months to divert funding earmarked for the development of a statewide computerized case management system in order to help cover court operating budgets.
The Judicial Council did not specify whether the funds being made available were from the case management system budget or not.
Several Sacramento and San Mateo Superior Court judges submitted a petition to the AOC in June asking the organization to jettison the $1 billion-plus computer project and objecting to the court closure plan, which the council approved Wednesday.
Under the plan, all California courts are subject to closure on the third Wednesday of each month, starting in September. The AOC will also be closed, and closure days will not be counted for purposes of computing time for statutory deadlines.
Each court will have the option of how it will absorb the reduction provided in the budget and will have to confer with their employee organizations about the impact of the closures, which may include furloughing employees, officials added.
These closures are estimated to result in savings of about $94.3 million on a statewide basis.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George, chair of the Judicial Council, said that the decision to close the courts was “difficult,” but emphasized that “it is important that we have a broad perspective during these times and not take any action that in the long term may be even more devastating than the proposals we are now considering.”
The Los Angeles Superior Court is facing an estimated budgetary shortfall of $143 million in the coming fiscal year—over double the amount in the most recent budget crisis that erupted in 2002, which ultimately resulted in closure of 29 courtrooms and layoffs of more than 150 employees.
In an effort to avoid or delay more drastic measures, Presiding Judge Charles “Tim” McCoy announced in May that the court would begin implementing its own court closures and employee furloughs in July, which is expected to save $18 million annually.
George also encouraged judges to take part in voluntary pay reductions, since court employees who are furloughed will be subject to pay cuts but the state’s judges, as constitutional officeholders, cannot be compelled to take less than their statutory salaries of nearly $179,000 annually.
The chief justice indicated that he will take a voluntary pay cut starting at the first available opportunity and the Los Angeles Superior Court’s judges have also been volunteering to contribute parts of their salary towards operating costs.
If each of the court’s 500-plus judicial officers give the equivalent of one day per month’s pay, they would raise over $4.5 million in the coming year.
The Mendocino Superior Court also began implementing court closures and employee furloughs in July, while the San Francisco, Ventura and Orange superior courts are scheduled to begin employee furloughs and court closures next month.
The council directed that information about monetary savings resulting from the closures and the impact of the closures on court users, county justice partners and court operations be reported to the council in January 2010, along with then-available fiscal information, so the council may reconsider whether to continue or reduce the number of monthly closures for the remainder of the fiscal year.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company