Rural Courts Lose Modest Bailout Requests

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) -Three rural courts that were hoping for a financial bailout from California’s Judicial Council were left empty-handed after the council voted unanimously Tuesday to turn down their requests.
     The courts were Del Norte County, asking for $300,000, Mono County, requesting $82,000 and Siskiyou County, asking for $72,000, all modest sums compared to the council’s own budget.
     According to the governor’s finance department, the council spends $140 million on its own operations that include paying for a staff of roughly 800 employees, a number that has been regularly criticized as excessive.
     All three courts are facing negative fund balances that will likely translate into employee furloughs, court closures and reduced public hours. Mono County said it will have to lay off one clerk. Siskiyou said it is unable to make payroll and will also have to reduce staff.
     During the same session, the council OK’d payment of $500,000 to pay for private software for Kings County.
     Council members said they were sympathetic to the financial plight of small, rural courts, but they did not want to send the wrong message.
     “I think that the situation presented to us today really emphasizes the need to advocate, respectively, around the one percent reserve,” Presiding Judge Dean Stout of Inyo County said.
     Stout was referring to Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to sweep individual trial court reserve pots of all funds over one percent into a statewide reserve to be managed by the Judicial Council. In 2012, the council approved criteria for courts requesting money from the reserve fund, that they be experiencing an unavoidable funding shortfall, unanticipated expense, or unforeseen emergency.”
     Judge Kenneth So of San Diego County said the council needed to hold fast to that policy.
     “A lot of courts are in the position of those three counties. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we have this rule. And the rule is there needs to be a demonstrated, unavoidable funding shortage,” So said. “And I suggest that we need to be consistent. And to be consistent, unfortunately these are difficult decisions and they’re not easy decisions. But everybody in California faces the same situation.”
     Head clerks from all three counties argued vehemently that they had been good stewards, but had relied on their reserve funds to get through the lean years. With reserves now gone, they have no where to turn.
     “I knew we were getting close to the point where we thought the governor’s budget reductions would end,” Mono County head clerk Hector Gonzalez told the council. “And I thought that now we just barely made it with at that point — and didn’t need to operationalize any more significant budget reductions.”
     He said every year, Mono county has had a surplus to cover court funding reductions, until now.
     The council was worried that the courts would continue to come back every year to renew funding requests.
     Gonzalez said that would not happen, unless emergency funding was denied.
     “We may have budget uncertainty. That’s obviously where the call I made in terms of counting on what I thought was going to be returned to previous funding levels because all the good news that came out of Sacramento until the governor’s surprise hit us.”
     “My point is that we will not need to come back,” said Gonzalez. “I can’t say that with certainty if we are given no assistance. That’s the one point where you create a budget hole for us that just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” he said.
     Siskiyou County head clerk Frances McHugh said the one percent reserve policy was to blame for the court’s dire financial situation, the first the court has ever faced.
     “I am responsible for submitting the application and also for the situation that we find ourselves in,” she said. “We were fortunate to have a very prudent history of management. And had very healthy fund balances that allowed us to operate very effectively until July 1, 2014. It should not be a surprise that small courts are having difficulty coping with funding.”
     “The applications you see before you today show how close to the razor’s edge small courts are now operating as a consequence of insufficient general funds for the trial courts and the unworkable one percent cap on fund balances,” she said. “Why we should have to apply for this money that’s already allocated to us to fulfill our constitutional duty is a huge question to me. And I also put it to you that a negative fund balance is by definition an unavoidable funding shortfall.”
     The council also voted, with the exception of Judge James Brandlin of Los Angeles, to give Kings County roughly $500,000 to complete its case management system. Brandlin said that he did not believe the reserve was “the appropriate funding source.”
     The rest of the council disagreed, considering the request part of a multi-year emergency upgrade to the court’s technology.
     After the vote, new council member Judge Brian Back of Ventura County said he had a problem with the term “operationalizing,” Department of Finance-speak for layoffs and court closures as a result of budget cuts.
     “We know what is meant by operationalizing our budget reductions.We all know. But in terms of our advocacy, we wouldn’t want the Legislature or the governor’s office to conclude, see, they’re operationalizing the budget reduction, no big deal. I think our message to them is we are surviving our fiscal malnourishment. Because we are surviving, but we are just wasting away,” Back said. “I just think we should be careful with our euphemisms.”

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