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Court budget cuts softened
July 29, 2011, 03:40 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal Staff

San Mateo County’s courts will not be hit as hard as predicted by the $350 million in budget cuts handed the statewide system but its top administrator says even the softened blow will still be felt through longer wait times for services and justice.

San Mateo County Superior Court will receive a $2.72 million cut instead of the anticipated $5 million in the current fiscal year, said Court Executive Officer John Fitton.

The court has been braced for $9 million in cuts over the next two years, starting with $5 million and followed by another $4 million. The latest news eases the initial hit to $2.72 million in fiscal year 2011-12, followed by an anticipated $5.4 million in 2012-13.

"It’s quite a bit better than the $5 million we feared but the problem really exists in the next fiscal year,” he said.

The silver lining at least, he said, is that the change buys Presiding Judge Beth Freeman and Assistant Presiding Judge Robert Foiles some time to hammer out judicial priorities, such as domestic violence and criminal felonies, and look at areas like traffic and small claims for efficiencies.

The slightly better scenario is due to the Judicial Council of California which last Friday approved a 6.8 percent cut to the 58 trial courts but also agreed to $122.4 million in offsets. The council also cut 9.7 percent from the state Supreme Court and six Courts of Appeal and a 12 percent reduction for the council and the Administrative Office of the Courts.

The move to dilute the financial burden will delay by a year case management computer system plans, take $60 million from court construction and use $3 million saved in fiscal year 2009-10 from the court interpreter program.

This week, Fitton said the council’s greater absorption of the cuts helps but doesn’t erase the challenges, particularly when the second set of reductions are based on future state budgets.

"They could get better although I’m thinking not likely. They could be worse,” Fitton said.

The council could also thin its administration and shift more money from construction and computers to the trial courts, he said.

"Our feeling is we’ve planned well and have good facilities. We don’t need those things. What we need is essential funding,” he said.

The bottom line, he said, is a $8.1 million ongoing permanent cut to San Mateo County Superior Court.

The Judicial Council’s decisions don’t really change the local courts’ planning, including the expectation of no layoffs in the current fiscal year, Fitton said.

The court workforce is already down 25 percent.

San Francisco Superior Court has grabbed significant notice for how it will absorb the cuts — divorces taking more than a year, civil trials awaiting several years, even the payment of simple traffic tickets taking hours — but Fitton said San Mateo County is avoiding the draconian outcomes by having a balanced budget and reserves.

However, the state cuts do still mean significantly longer waits for civil trials and small claims cases, reduced service hours and priority given to criminal matters in a court with a $50 million annual budget.

Small claims will take six months instead of 60 days, civil trials could take two to four years for resolution and even child custody disputes might run upward of 18 months. The court won’t have closures or furloughs unless mandated by the state but visitors should expect longer lines and shorter hours.

The cut could also have a domino effect onto other public safety areas, such as the already overcrowded jail which could find itself even more packed as defendants await resolution of their cases.


Michelle Durand can be reached by email: michelle@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 102.


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