Monterey County’s courts brace for another year of budget reductions.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
Delayed restraining orders, reduced public service hours, civil suits in limbo: These are some of the tolls of four straight years of cuts, totaling $693 million, to California’s judicial branch. The 2012-13 fiscal year doesn’t offer any relief, with $544 million in additional reductions about to come down hard on local courts – and Monterey County’s are already reeling.
The county court system lost about $4.8 million in revenue from 2010-11 to 2011-12 and is expecting a multimillion-dollar reduction for 2012-13. The number will be confirmed after July 17, but court spokeswoman Nona Medina anticipates the loss will be about $4.4 million. On June 29 and July 2, the court laid off four top-level managers.
“The people we lost were like family,” Presiding Judge Timothy Roberts says. “They’ve worked here for years.”
Those layoffs came after a voluntary program last year offered perks for quitting, which cut about 10 percent of the county’s roughly 200 court employees.
Effective July 20, the Monterey County Superior Court branches in Salinas, Marina and Monterey are scaling back their public-service hours to 8am-2pm, Monday through Friday. The same reduced hours apply in King City, but the clerk’s office will be closed Mondays.
“ANYTHING THAT’S NOT CRIMINAL AND MANDATED BY CONSTITUTIONAL LAW WILL GET SHORT SHRIFT.”
Depending on the depth of the cuts, people filing civil lawsuits may face longer waits, and public access to legal documents could become more time-consuming. “Anything that’s not criminal and mandated by constitutional law will get short shrift,” Roberts says. “If you can’t pay the people to do the work, then the courtroom won’t be open.”
The cuts could impact county employees in the probation, public defense, district attorney and jail departments as well. “Closure of the courts or reductions in the numbers will reduce the speed at which cases are disposed, so it will affect the workload of the attorneys,” County Administrator Lew Bauman says. “If we can’t move cases through quickly, that will further increase pressure on our local jail. It’s not good news.”
Chief Assistant District Attorney Terry Spitz says his office hasn’t seen major impacts yet. But he worries this year’s reductions could cut into the county’s truancy program, which helps get thousands of kids back into school every year. “It’s one of the few crime-prevention programs,” he says.
Monterey-based civil litigator Andy Swartz has been following news of courthouse closures statewide, but he hasn’t noticed a slowdown of case proceedings in Monterey County. For that he credits the efficiencies of local judges and lawyers, and the county’s mediation program. “I doubt that any of our judges in Monterey that handle civil cases will be sent over to Salinas to handle criminal cases,” he says.
Another blow: Courts are no longer allowed to maintain significant fund balances (or savings) beyond a two-year period. The county court system has drawn between $760,000 and $1.7 million from its fund balance every year since 2008-09 in order to close its annual budget gaps, Medina reports.
This year’s cuts could force the closure of any of Monterey County’s four trial courts and the juvenile probation department in Salinas; criminal cases would be transferred to other county courthouses, and civil workload would be shifted.
“There is no program, and there is no courthouse that is not subject to review for potential loss based on the financial situation,” Roberts says. “Everything is on the table.”