Courts still feeling the squeeze

Final state funding could mean more upheaval ahead

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 26, 2012 

— The Merced County Superior Court is facing financial uncertainty as the state continues to cut back on funding for area court systems.

Over recent years, court officials in Merced have resorted to layoffs, furlough days and other cost-cutting measures as the court system has seen its annual budget shrink dramatically.

In coming months, area court officials will be faced with some of their toughest decisions to date, as statewide funding for courts this year is expected to take its biggest dip since the beginning of the recession.

"I've been in the court system for 30 years and this is the worst I've ever seen it," said Linda Romero-Soles, chief executive officer of the Merced County Superior Court. "It's pretty depressing."

The Merced County Superior Court system pulled in $15 million last fiscal year -- money almost entirely made up of the annual state allocation. That was down from the previous year, when the court system received about $18 million in funding.

For the 2012-13 fiscal year, Merced County's court system projects estimated revenue of about $11.7 million. However, the actual allocation amount is not expected to be announced until late November.

"We're continuing to look at increasing our revenue and decreasing our expenses," Romero-Soles said. "We're in constant meetings with our executive committee and we're looking at what we can do."

Romero-Soles declined to say whether there would be layoffs this year. However, it's not clear how much local court officials can do outside of layoffs and furloughs, as 75 percent of the budget is made up of salaries.

Over the last two years, almost all of the paid interns have been laid off, several management employees were let go and union court workers agreed to a pay cut by taking furlough days.

This year, union employees with the Merced County Superior Court voted to reject furlough days, according to union officials.

Merced's union court employees, who have not seen a pay increase in more than five years, have willingly worked with the court officials, said Cedric Porter, business representative for United Public Employees Local 1.

"The workers elected to not take a furlough this year because they could not afford it," he said. "If they were to take the furlough this year a lot of them could not pay their rent or make their car payments. When you don't have anything left to give, you have to say no."

The union's contract has been extended until November 2013, Porter said.

The United Public Employees Local 1 also represents court workers in Sacramento, where 35 members were recently laid off in anticipation of expected cuts in November.

Merced County Superior Court has 144 employees. 88 of whom belong to the public employees union and eight of whom are unionized court interpreters.

Last year, the court laid off seven employees.

Because of budget cuts, plans have been put on hold to build a new Los Banos courthouse to replace the current facility, which serves about 36 percent of the county's criminal cases. The new courthouse in Los Banos would be about 30,000 square feet on a 4.4-acre site.

The Court Facilities Working Group, which oversees court construction projects statewide, recommended earlier this month that the project be restarted with state funding. The Judicial Council of California will consider the recommendation next month.

The existing Los Banos courthouse, which is about 1,136 square feet, took on additional work earlier this year when courts in Gustine and Dos Palos were closed as a cost-saving measure.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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