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Governor Brown's proposed budget not good for courts
Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2012-13 budget for the state court system will put severe constraints on what services will be offered at the new South County Justice Center in Porterville.
Construction on the nine-room courthouse remains on schedule, with plans for it to open the first week of October, but what services will be offered is in doubt.
“Construction will not be stopped because it is funded from bonds already sold,” replied LaRayne Cleek, court executive officer for Tulare County, when asked what impact budget cuts are having and the proposed budget.
However, she added: “It will seriously impact court operations and the level of services the court is able to provide, including in the South County.”
Over the past several years the governor has drastically cut into the funding for trial courts, although the governor is claiming he is actually increasing that funding by 7.2 percent, or $163 million, in his proposed budget.
“That is not really accurate because the proposed budget does not fund increased costs for employee benefits and health insurance [estimated at about $30 statewide],” she said.
Cleek also noted the governor has already taken $200 million a and is eyeing another $450 million cut next year.
With the new Porterville courthouse opening, the county was looking at expanding court services, but now, at best, may only be able to transfer some from Visalia to Porterville. At the least, what was planned in Porterville is having to be reevaluated.
“It will definitely impact it, but how much we don’t know,” said Deanna Jasso, court administrative manager.
Judge Glade Roper said he was extremely disappointed “on how much is being cut.”
The governor has been shifting much of the funding for the courts from the general fund to be more self-sustaining. The funding difference has been made up in a huge jump in fines and fees people pay at the courthouse, and the governor is proposing even more increases, including $10 to every traffic ticket. Because of that increase in add-on fees to tickets, a cell phone ticket can run nearly $200, when the fine is just $20.
Brown is also saying the court needs to further dip into its $200 million reserve, but the Legislative Analyst Office said the reserve is only a little more than half that amount.
Jasso said they still believe a lot more services will be offered at the new courthouse in Porterville than are offered at the old courthouse. Also, she felt that felony trials, which are now only held in Visalia, will be held here as well, but some other court services may not be transferred and the number of judges assigned here could be fewer than first planned. It was also planned to phase in services here.
Cleek noted that the local court has seen a $2 million cut in funding over the past three years. “We have made cuts in operation expenses at great cost to our ability to serve the public,” she said.
In the past three years, both the Tulare and Dinuba courthouses were closed, with 32 people laid off. Another 39 positions have not been filled.
“Losing the commissioner required taking a judge’s slot intended for Porterville and sending it to juvenile court,” said Cleek.
Court Functions Being Decided
How the governor’s budget plays out and how soon it is finalized, is important because local court officials have begun the process of deciding what services will be offered in Porterville, and thus what judges will need to be assigned here, as well as staff.
Jasso said they have developed three teams to begin that process — a tactical team, a strategic team and the implementation team.
The strategic team will be made up of senior officials, including Roper. That team will make decisions based on recommendations from the tactical team.
Jasso said the presiding judge and Cleek have already begun the process of determining what type of court functions will be offered in Porterville and what judges or commissioners will be assigned here.
She said, “It will not start with nine courtrooms.”
By the middle of this month, said Jasso, the types of services will be decided. “We will offer more than the present court. We’re really looking at felony trials in Porterville,” she said. However, Cleek said they have decided against offering family law service in Porterville.
The big question is the number of employees that can be hired or transferred to work in the Porterville Court.
“According to a very recent study of the number of employees it should take to service our caseload, we need 282. We currently have 209,” she wrote. “If we have to cut even more employees, we will not be able to staff the courtrooms we have.”
Jasso said not opening the new courthouse is not an issue. She said there is funding to move into the new building and it will open as scheduled.
“It’s still going to be a beautiful building that will serve the South County,” said Jasso, adding it is a “big deal” for all residents of the county, especially those in the South County.
Roper agreed, saying, “We’ve got this big new facility. We will be able to do some things. It will be better than what we have now.”
He said it was always planned to phase in services and judges, and he expressed no doubt the court staff, including judges, will grow.
“There’s no other place to grow,” he said.
Rick Elkins is editor of the Porterville Recorder. He can be reached at 784-5000, ext. 1040, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.