Modesto's courthouse facing cuts

Modesto's courthouse won't go dark one day a month -- like courtrooms in Los Angeles -- but employees will absorb 5 percent pay cuts by taking 13 furlough days this fiscal year.

Lawyers and others who do business with the court will notice a difference, because clerks' offices will close for the day at 2 p.m.

Satellite courtrooms in Ceres and Turlock have been shuttered.

The moves trim $3.4 million and give the court a $32 million budget for the fiscal year that started July 1. They also help avoid up to 28 layoffs in Stanislaus County Superior Court, said Mike Tozzi, the court's executive officer.

Judges are exempt because a constitutional provision says their $179,000 salaries cannot be touched. But the California Judges Association and the Judicial Council of California are talking about ways to structure a give-back so judges can share the burden with their staff.

"They are not required to take the furlough, like we are," Tozzi said.

Courthouse workers, who are state employees, will take four hours off during every two-week pay period beginning July 18.

County employees who work in the courthouse will see similar cuts. The district attorney's office is balancing its books by imposing 13 furlough days. The public defender's office, which has a much smaller staff, has imposed eight furlough days.

The Sheriff's Department, which handles court secu-rity, will not impose furloughs but plans to close a 64-bed wing of the jail, funneling more low-risk offenders into work and home- detention programs.

There's nothing new about balancing budgets with unpaid leave time.

Gov. Schwarzenegger began ordering mandatory furloughs in February, forcing 200,000 state workers to take two days off per month, but employees who work under union contracts could not be touched without formal negotiations.

With 12 furlough days planned, workers in the city of Modesto fared slightly better than their counterparts in the county.

Teachers in Modesto City Schools, the county's largest school district, received a 1 percent pay cut and three furlough days. The governor also is talking about shortening the school year by seven days.

At California State University, Stanislaus, talks are ongoing and plans call for up to 24 furlough days this fiscal year.

Vote to avoid layoffs

At the courthouse, employees are members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. About 70 percent of them voted in favor of furloughs over layoffs, Tozzi said. Managers are not represented by a union and will take the same cuts, Tozzi said.

Lawmakers in Sacramento have talked about imposing a mandatory court holiday once a month statewide, and the Los Angeles County Superior Court responded by taking the third Wednesday off every month. Officials in Modesto prefer staggered staffing shortages to a complete closure once a month.

A plan to add 150 judges statewide over three years also is on hold.

Five new judges had been promised to Stanislaus County, so court officials leased and renovated two floors in the City Towers building at 801 10th St. in downtown Modesto, where civil dockets fill four new courtrooms.

Funding dried up after lawmakers appropriated money for the first 50 judges, including two who were appointed to the bench in Modesto.

The remaining 100 judicial appointments are in limbo. So administrators who thought they would have to scramble to provide a courtroom for each judge instead closed satellite offices in Ceres and Turlock.

Through it all, Tozzi's main goal was to save jobs. The court has 261 employees, down from 290 a year ago, but no one has been laid off.

"We did our best," Tozzi said.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at or 578-2338.