Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Superior Court Will Close Once a Month Due to Budget Crisis
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Superior Court will shut down nearly all of its operations and furlough its employees once per month, at least until the end of the current fiscal year, Superior Court Presiding Judge Charles “Tim” McCoy said yesterday.
McCoy informed judges, staff members and the public that except for essential operations, the courts will close on the third Wednesday of each month, beginning July 15, and that the closures and furloughs could remain in place for up to two years.
“This is a day I hoped would never come,” he told reporters who were invited to his courtroom, where, accompanied by Assistant Presiding Judge Lee Edmon and Executive Officer John A. Clark, he outlined the implementation of the furlough plan.
The furloughs will affect approximately 600 courtrooms and bench officers, and more than 5,000 employees in 50 courthouses, but county agencies housed within those courthouses will be unaffected, court officials said. These closures are expected to save $18 million per year.
McCoy said some courtrooms will remain open to handle arraignments, child support cases, probation issues and emergency matters, but no specific decisions have yet been made about which facilities will remain open. All civil courtrooms will be closed, McCoy added.
Clerk’s offices and juror services will be closed, and drop boxes will be made available to those wishing to file court papers, court officials said.
In addition to the furloughs, McCoy said the court has implemented a mandatory hiring freeze, which he predicted will “probably continue for the next three fiscal years,” and the release said the court will make $16 million in expenditure reductions by cutting services and supplies, restricting travel and other means.
The court faces an estimated budget shortfall of nearly $90 million for the coming fiscal year, the officials explained in the release—nearly 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.
Although McCoy acknowledged the possibility of layoffs and program reductions in the future, the emphasized that such measures are “not in the plan” right now.
If the court’s fiscal situation continues to deteriorate, court officials cautioned in the release that the jobs of a quarter of the court’s 5,400 employees could be eliminated within the next four years and that reductions in courthouses and courtroom operations could take place.
McCoy said that Chief Justice Ronald M. George is “working with the Legislature for a statewide closure” on the same dates as the Los Angeles Superior Court, but cautioned that the Superior Court will be implementing its furlough plan regardless of whether the state follows suit.
He called the planned closures “a step in the wrong direction for society,” which would invariably create “almost two and a half weeks of work that we won’t get done” and increase the court’s backlog of cases but insisted:
“This court must, for budgetary reasons, do this.”
Implementation of the plan, McCoy jokingly said would be “Management 601,” but turning serious, acknowledged that “we’re not going to be able to deal with it perfectly.” But he expressed his faith in Clarke’s abilities to put the plan into action and the court’s ability to “handle difficult situations,” the 2002 budgetary crisis.
‘Rainy Day Fund’
Over the past six years, McCoy said the court has amassed a $90 million “rainy day fund” resulting from savings made by budget cuts, but he maintained “we can’t spend that entire amount at one time because at the end of one year, we’ll be at the precipice, with no way to survive the coming year.”
He explained that the furlough plan will allow the court to draw against those savings to keep the court operating and allow for attrition of court employees, but warned that the fund will still be depleted after two years.
But McCoy repeatedly emphasized that the court will still need to obtain $16 million in security funds each year. “We absolutely need to get that money,” he insisted. “Without that money, our plan will not succeed.”
In the long run, he said the “only solution, in my view,” is additional resources for the court, and vowed to actively lobby for such assistance from the Legislature.
McCoy also said that there is “some discussion at the state level” to ask judges to voluntarily make a contribution of part of their salaries in light of the furloughs, because their salaries are fixed for their terms of office, and all of the court’s hourly employees will be affected by the furloughs.
“I take that very seriously, and very personally,” McCoy said, adding that the court’s management is discussing possible labor issues with the appropriate unions.
Michael Soller, spokesman for the SEIU Local 721—which represents Los Angeles Superior Court’s court reporters, court services assistants, administrative assistants, and court supervisors—told the MetNews that the court is contractually obligated to meet with the union over the impact of the furloughs and that meetings are “going to start in the next couple of days.”
He said that the union’s position is that “any kind of furloughs are going to have a negative impact on court services and public safety” and “we’re hopeful that the courts won’t have to close, service won’t be interrupted.”
Soller also said that members of the union will be going to San Francisco May 28 to meet with the Administrative Office of the Courts and to talk to legislators about reallocating money the AOC has set aside from a computer program to assist the courts.
“Why are we spending of hundreds of millions of dollars on this system when we have a need right now?” he asked.
Los Angeles Superior Court spokesman Alan Parachini explained that the AOC—where officials could not be immediately reached for comment—has earmarked several million dollars toward implementing a statewide case management system.
“The question is if the Legislature will pressure them to divert the money,” Parachini said, “It’s not a decision we can make.”
A representative of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 910, which represents the court’s research attorneys, could not be reached for comment. Gwendolyn Jones, president of AFSCME Local 1575, which represents the court’s clerks and paralegals, said she could not comment until she had discussed the issue with the union’s executive board.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company