(CN) – The administrative agency that oversees California’s courts has decided to halt work on a minor computer system that tracks employee payroll, in the face of a $425 million budget deficit. A dissenting group of judges said Wednesday that the cutback should be extended to much more expensive and unnecessary projects, charging that the agency has favored private consultants and a few in its own ranks while imposing great sacrifices on the trial courts.
An internal memo released by William Vickrey, who directs the Administrative Office of the Courts, confirmed an $11 million cut to the payroll computer program, but the memo also laid out a grand strategy to deal with a big budget shortfall and challenges to the agency’s spending priorities.
“In May, the Chief Justice and I will meet with the Governor on budget and other branch priorities,” said the memo. The document also suggested that an early meeting with the governor would hopefully seal a deal on the budget and avoid a debate with or within the legislature.
“An early resolution on budget issues would allow more timely decisions on resource allocations and, hopefully, avoid having the branch’s budget caught up in eleventh-hour state budget negotiations,” said the memo issued last week.
A group of trial court judges who have raised their voices in opposition to the billion-dollar computer and construction projects undertaken by the AOC renewed their criticism on Wednesday.
“While trial courts are forced to close courtrooms, layoff staff and decrease hours of service to the public, the same does not appear to hold true for the AOC, an organization which claims to ‘serve the courts for the benefit of all Californians,'” said Sacramento Superior Court Judge Maryanne Gilliard, a director of the California Alliance of Judges.
“In reality, only a few have benefited — those who work for the AOC and receive pay raises, those who have information technology and court facility maintenance contracts and those who have been hired as temporary workers in spite of a purported hiring freeze.”
The memo from Vickrey addressed some of the criticisms of the agency’s budget, establishing a 10-member committee to deal with outside audits of the agency’s use of public money. Committee members will be appointed by California Chief Justice Ronald George and will draw from existing committees plus one member each representing court clerks, the judges association and lawyers in the State Bar.
The purpose of the committee is not to conduct audits itself, said the AOC’s spokesman, because the members are not expected to have auditing expertise. The memo said the committee would make recommendations on funding requests and financial audits.
“From the perspective of good governance, public sector audits provide an appropriate mechanism for promoting public accountability and transparency,” the memo said.
The $11 million cut announced by Vickrey is aimed at a payroll tracking system that, since its inception in 2001, has cost $199.6 million, according to an April report to the California legislature. That system is part of a larger accounting system for the courts that has been installed in all 58 trial courts of California. The personnel tracking component has only been installed in six of those courts.
“We are very short of money and are looking at anywhere we can make cuts,” said AOC spokesman Philip Carrizosa, who said the Judicial Council has not decided on where to direct the $11 million savings. In answer to a question, he said it was unlikely that the council would give the money to Los Angeles Superior, which asked the council in February for $47 million to prevent 500 employee layoffs in October.
The AOC is currently facing an audit by the State Department of Finance expected to be completed this summer. One topic of financial controversy has been the price tag on a much bigger computer project intended to track case management in California. The price tag has ballooned from seed money of $21 million in 2002 to a projected cost of $1.3 billion with $79 million in maintenance fees on a yearly basis thereafter.
But Vickrey is staying the course on the big computer system, called the Court Case Management System. “I am confident the final CCMS product will deliver on its promise of improving access to justice for the people of California,” said his memo.
Trial judges up and down the state have blasted that system as “idiotic” and “a rip-off of the taxpayer.” They say the system is over-built, breaks down and continues to cost millions for payments to private computer consultants.
“While we are pleased that the AOC has found $11 million of the tax payer money that is better spent elsewhere, we are troubled that the AOC continues to fund the problematic and costly CCMS project,” said Sacramento’s Judge Gilliard in a prepared statement.
“We would urge the AOC to eliminate all spending not directly tied to trial court operations and in so doing acknowledge that the top priority of the Judicial Branch is to keep courthouses open to the public.”