San Mateo Superior Court has $9 million in the bank, but court officials are announcing their intent to lay off court commissioners and shutter courtrooms all the same. If state funding to county courts doesn’t increase by July 2013, they say, they’ll have no choice but to make dramatic cuts that echo those already made by neighboring counties like San Francisco.
The proposed cuts, detailed in a press release circulated Thursday, include plans to shut six courtrooms and lay off all but one of the court’s seven commissioners.
According to new state law, courts are required to spend down any reserve funds by 2014, a point that is particularly sore with San Mateo Presiding Judge Beth Freeman.
“We saved that money; it’s not like an inheritance,” Freeman said in an interview Friday. “Those reserves allowed us to be an innovative court.”
According to Court Executive Officer John Fitton, San Mateo Superior “would’ve had a balanced budget if the cuts had not continued and deepened” during the last legislative session. Since the 2010-2011 fiscal year, Fitton said, the court’s revenue has dropped nearly $9 million.
Fitton said the court announced its budget cut proposal so far ahead of time in part to make the public aware of the court’s future financial straits before Californians vote on Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax plan in the November general election.
Freeman said although she believes the Administrative Office of the Court and Judicial Council have taken steps toward being better, more responsible advocates for trial court funding, “we haven’t gotten the results we wanted.” Like many other judges throughout the state, Freeman points to “mistakes” made by previous AOC administrations in spending decisions. When asked if she was referring to the court’s controversial efforts to centralize electronic court records through the computerized California Case Management System, Freeman said unequivocally that she was.
“I have great respect for the direction the chief justice is going,” she said, “but I say that in full recognition that the AOC has made very serious misjudgments in the past.”
Both Fitton and Freeman said the cuts will have serious impact on citizens of the county. Fitton said that budget gaps are already noticeable around the court. In the traffic division, for instance, it formerly was “standard” for staff to pick up the phone by the third ring. Now, he says, the public waits up to 45 minutes to speak to someone, because court staff has shrunk 30 percent in four years.
“We used to take great pride” in picking up the phone, he said.
Now, court officials caution, there may be even longer silence on the line.