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Courts say cuts jeopardize justice
January 11, 2013, 05:00 AM By Michelle Durand Daily Journal Staff

While county officials are feeling positive about the proposed state budget unveiled yesterday, the lack of relief for the court system has those in that branch anticipating the need for severe reductions in hours, locations and staff.

The cuts were already in the pipeline and have already led local court officials to warn about possible courtroom closures and consolidations. Yesterday's budget document just cemented the likelihood.

"It doesn't appear to include any elimination of the cuts proposed for this fiscal year or next. That puts us back to the same place,” said John Fitton, chief executive officer of the San Mateo County Superior Court.

Fitton said the courts can't even hang their hat on the idea that at least the proposed cuts aren't worse because last year much of the negative news for that branch came later in the budget cycle.

Brown's proposal would take another $200 million from the courts by delaying courthouse construction projects in favor of operations and give the state's system approximately $3.1 billion. The system, which includes 58 trial courts and the California Supreme Court, has already lost about $1.2 billion over the last few years.

For San Mateo County, that has already meant a $2.72 million loss already absorbed and another $5.4 million in fiscal year 2012-13. In September, the court began issuing announcements that up to six courtrooms face closure beginning July 1, 2013 unless the state restores funding. Commissioners and other employees, court services and hours could also be on the chopping block.

The court has already consolidated traffic courts and moved family law and restraining order matters to the Hall of Justice in Redwood City as cost-savings moves.

Attitudes were more positive over in the Human Services Agency where director Beverly Beasley Johnson said the department will be working with other counties and state organizations to figure out what the proposal means for San Mateo County's needy children, families and adults.

"We are cautiously optimistic that the governor's budget will enable us to maintain current service levels to county residents but it is too soon to tell,” Johnson said.

"Too soon to tell” was the common theme throughout the local response to the state budget.

Don Horsley, president of the Board of Supervisors, said it seems like a "pretty good budget” for its lack of drastic cuts to health and safety programs and its spending on the Affordable Care Act. He is also glad the inmate realignment formula stands because there was worry the governor might shift more locally in response to the ongoing federal demand to reduce the state prison population.

"The only thing we don't know is about school funding and we don't want to pit things like health and safety against education. So we're just kind of watching it. We're being cautious,” Horsley said.

County Manager John Maltbie also said concerns include the impact of the school funding proposal on the county's property tax allocations, otherwise known as the Education Revenue Augmentation Fund, and the vehicle licensing fees.

The complexity of school financing and the calculations of the two funding streams means it will take a little while to figure it out, Maltbie said.


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




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