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Council Spends Emergency Funds|Hears Support for Overall Audit of Finances

(CN) - The Judicial Council gave struggling Kings County Superior Court $130,000 in emergency fundsThursday, where the emergency was a shortfall in payments for pricey software. In the same session, the council heard a judge's argument supporting an audit of the way the council and its underlying bureaucracy go about spending public funds.

On a 16-2 vote, the council approved a payment for Kings County to come out of a $35 million pot set aside for emergencies. The crisis in the Kings County court's finances is the inability to complete payments to Tyler Technologies for a new case management system.

The court is in its second year of a five-year, $2.11 million Tyler contract.

"We cannot fund our CMS program on the backs of our employees," Presiding Judge Thomas DeSantos said. "We have already taken drastic measures, we will continue to take drastic measures, but I cannot tell my people to take more furloughs or lay off more people."

The court has already closed its courthouse in Lemoore and cut hours at the Corcoran courthouse. It also cut two management positions and required 22 employee furlough days for roughly $900,000 in savings for fiscal year 2013-2014, but is still unable to fund the technology project without going into the red.

In addition to sending emergency funds to the Kings County court, the council decided to spend the remaining money in the emergency pot by distributing the rest of the $35 million to local courts before April 15, when the courts must report to the Legislature and the governor's Department of Finance.

Such spending has fueled a tech gold rush in the California court system. Local courts are emptying their local reserve funds by funding big-ticket items, such as multi-million-dollar software contracts. Anything left in the reserve funds at the end of June returns to the state.

In connection with overall spending by the courts, Judge Steve White of Sacramento urged the council Thursday to support an audit of spending by the council and the Administrative Office of the Courts. The audit was requested by Assembly member Reginald Jones-Sawyer earlier this month, specifically referencing the half-billion dollars spent on software that was used by only a few courts and is now rapidly being ditched in favor of more recent technology.

White pointed out that the council has not voted on the audit but appears opposed. "I note with some interest that this body without a vote seems to be opposed to it," said the judge.

"In order for this body to have credibility, it needs to have an audit, just to find out how monies are spent in the AOC and the Judicial Council," said White. He said one critical purpose of an audit would be to find out "the priority of allocation of those monies."

"Neither the Legislature nor the Governor, nor the courts knows what that is," White told the council.

Jones-Sawyer, a Democrat from Los Angeles, requested the audit last week with a letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, noting that the council was hiking its own budget while starving the trial courts that directly serve the people of California.

"The Judicial Council and the AOC are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars annually," said the assembly member's letter. "As the Department of Finance and the Legislative Analyst's Office do not currently receive a detailed annual budget for the Judicial Council or AOC, there exists no mechanism to ensure accountability of public funds with which it is entrusted."

"Despite several budget cuts, the Judicial Council's budget grew while funding for trial court operations declined," he said. "For example, the Judicial Council's budget for 2013-2014 is stated at $141.5 million. This is $20.9 million more than was spent in 2011-2012."

The audit will be conducted by the Bureau of State Audits, which, in an earlier 2011 audit, found the court administrative office had spent hundreds of millions in public funds on the Court Case Management system, a statewide software project that was terminated in 2012.

"The audit uncovered mismanagement, waste, and a lack of meaningful oversight that led to the program's eventual termination," said the letter from Jones-Sawyer. "As a result, taxpayers saved hundreds of millions of dollars, and members of the public who must rely on courts were spared even deeper cuts to services."

Jones-Sawyer chairs the Assembly budget sub-committee that funds the courts.

The administrative office's director, Steven Jahr, rejected the letter's points.

"The Judicial Council and AOC's operation budget and expenditures represent 3.6 percent of the overall branch budget and have gone down," Jahr told the council.

In his statement to the council, White rejected that claim, saying there is no way of knowing where the money goes without an independent review.

"The reporting is opaque and anything but transparent," said White. "There's a lot of hide-the-ball. The courts need to regain confidence in the AOC and the Judicial Council and it doesn't happen without that audit."

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