Judicial Hiring Freeze Amid Iowa Budget Cuts

     DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) — The Iowa judicial system said it will begin a hiring freeze on July 1 to confront a $5 million budget shortfall.
     July 1 is the day the budget for Fiscal Year 2017 takes effect, having just been approved Wednesday by the Iowa Supreme Court.
     The judicial system said in a statement that lawmakers appropriated the same amount for the judicial system as they had in fiscal year 2016 — $178.7 million — but that this funding is not enough to sustain services at their current level.
     In addition to anticipated increases in the cost of health insurance, the system said it faces increases from salary annualization, plus “across-the-board and step increases for contract covered and noncontract-covered employees.”
     “With this budget, the supreme court tried to minimize disruption of services to Iowans despite the significant shortfall in our appropriation,” State Court Administrator David Boyd said in a statement. “The budget does not include court closure days or layoffs, but there will be consequences. With unfilled positions in courthouses around the state combined with fewer judges, Iowans can expect delays, and our troubled youth may not have as much interaction with juvenile court officers as they do now. Additionally, there are no guarantees this budget will resolve our problem. If the vacancies do not cover the shortfall, the court will have to reconsider the possibility of court closure days or layoffs.”
     The budget also eliminates pay raises for judges and magistrates, who have only seen a bump in their salaries once since 2008.
     Personnel expenses account for 96 percent of the judicial branch’s budget, according to the department’s website, but it’s not the only place where the state is slashing expenses. Travel costs will be cut by 10 percent, postage by 20 percent, and technology and furniture by 50 percent.
     Specialty court expansions will also face a moratorium. Iowa’s specialty courts primarily cater to offenders struggling with substance abuse and substance-related crimes, such as OWI (operating while intoxicated).
     Mentally ill offenders, veterans and women all have specialty courts in Iowa as well.
     “Although the FY 17 budget freezes the expansion of specialty courts, it maintains the judicial branch’s commitment to Iowa’s existing 55 specialty courts and will require approval from the supreme court to suspend operations of any existing specialty court,” Steve Davis, communications director for the Iowa judical branch told Courthouse News in an email. “The reduction or elimination of specialty courts and other new programs that have recently been developed to better meet the critical needs of Iowans was considered by the supreme court and is still a possibility if the branch does not experience the vacant positions necessary to meet the budget’s goal, or if increases in health insurance cost exceed the expectations built-in to the budget.”
     The judicial system will be conducting a workload study to inform future decisions about budgeting and has invited suggestions from Iowans about how the reductions have affected them.
     “The court appreciates the continued support of judicial branch employees as well as the legal and business communities,” Chief Justice Mark Cady said in a statement. “The court will maintain regular meetings with the judicial council, judicial branch employees, attorneys, and business leaders to discuss the results of the judicial branch workload study, listen to the impact of budget decisions on services for Iowans, and develop long term planning options.”
     Davis said other governmental departments also received less funding than requested and that the executive branch may be facing similar challenges.

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