San Diego Court Extends Hours as Budget Ticks Up

     SAN DIEGO (CN) — In a sign of improving financial stability, San Diego Superior Court will be open to the public for longer hours starting in July after years of early closures brought on by a $33 million budget cut.
     Starting July 11, all San Diego Superior Court business counters will be open until 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. In September 2012, the court cut its business hours open to the public, shutting its doors with noon closures every Friday. During the Friday closures, the public had to use drop boxes to submit filings or payments Friday afternoons.
     Presiding Judge Jeffrey Barton said the extended hours “should improve our relationship with the public and the people we serve. “
     “It’s been a frustration for us, and I know for people trying to get access to the business, for it to be closed Friday afternoons. One of the first things we wanted to do as things got better financially was restore that access,” Barton said.
     Before the Great Recession, San Diego Superior Court’s annual budget was close to $200 million, Barton said. But after a drastic $33 million budget decrease, the court “bottomed out” at $169 million in 2013. The past couple years, the court budget has slowly ticked up, with this year’s budget tapping out at $176 million.
     “We’re still in a hole, it’s just not as deep of a hole,” public affairs officer Karen Dalton said.
     “As our budget kept going down and we couldn’t rehire, we had to make the decision to make changes. It wasn’t just the hours; we closed courtrooms and a court facility in Ramona. It’s almost like you’re on a boat and you’re throwing off things that you can just to keep the boat afloat,” Dalton said.
     Thanks to a growing budget, the court was able to hire new clerks for the first time in six years about five months ago. Now that the new employees are trained, expanding court hours was finally within reach.
     “It made sense to open the service hours because it is a major point of contact with the public, but we’re not out of the woods yet and can’t guarantee how things will go in the future,” Barton said.
     Many of the services cut during the recession still remain in effect, including several civil departments that were cut. But once the court’s budget stabilized over the past couple years, Barton said “we were able to make the move” to expanding hours.
     “It’s been a constant source of concern for the court — to have reduced business hours — so it’s been a topic of interest and consultation with the court CEO, executive committee and judges,” Barton said.
     While the courts closed at noon every Friday for the past four years, things were still going on behind-the-scenes with court staff playing catch-up on stacks of the week’s court filings.
     The “downtime” away from manning the business counter was essential to avoid getting “backed up,” especially in light of a staff shortage due to a hiring freeze, Barton said.
     Now the court’s budget is on an upswing, the court is “going to be able to maintain the direction we’re going in,” Dalton said.
     “We feel the worst thing we could do is expand the hours and then find out we couldn’t keep them expanded and have to retract it,” Dalton said.
     Judge Barton said next on his list is expanding court telephone hours in the near future.
     The expanded court hours will transfer over when the new downtown courthouse opens early next year, Dalton said.

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