Half of Merced County's judges opt out of pay-cut plan

MERCED — Half of Merced County's judges are opting out of a voluntary pay-waiver program even though they're among the best-paid public employees of the Merced County Superior Court.

Their six-figure paychecks are going untouched while colleagues doing other jobs in the courthouse are seeing their pay reduced because of a mandatory furlough program.

That's according to pay records from the Administrative Office of the Courts, which oversees the state's court system.

Judges were asked in October to give up $688.34 a month out of their annual salaries of $178,789.

They didn't have to, but it was considered a measure of goodwill because of the furloughs imposed on other court employees and a mandate to reduce $400,000 in spending at the Merced court.

The voluntary pay waivers saved the court $31,071.69.

If all nine judges had taken the waivers every month, the number would have been $39,331.86, a difference of $8,260.17

Only four waived part of their salary every month from October to April: Presiding Judge John Kirihara and Judges Ronald Hansen, Hugh Flanagan and Brian McCabe.

The other judges took pay waivers for only part of that seven-month period. One of them retired a month into the program.

Here is a breakdown of the judges and how many months each took a pay waiver: Frank Dougherty, one month, then he retired; Carol Ash, two months; Marc Garcia, three months; David Moranda, five months; Donald Proietti, six months; Hansen, seven months; Kirihara, seven months; Flanagan, seven months; McCabe, seven months.

Of the five judges up for election in June, all but one — Hansen — dropped out of the program after the March deadline for contenders passed. Those judges — Moranda, Proietti, Ash and Garcia — couldn't be reached for comment.

"It's been stressed by the AOC all along that voluntary salary waivers are voluntary. They all encouraged us to take the waiver. It was frankly the right thing to do," said Kiri- hara. "Whether people changed their preference after the election filing period passed is something I don't really have any comment on."

In 2009, the Merced County Superior Court, like most superior courts in California, faced a severe budget crisis.

According to Kirihara, the court had to cut roughly $400,000 from its 2009-10 budget because of state cutbacks.

Those cuts were achieved in part through forced furlough days, which shut the court down one day a week. The lost day of work was equivalent to a 4.62 percent pay cut for court employees, said Kirihara.

Despite the hard times, the nine judges on the court weren't required to face the burden of pay cuts because, constitutionally, their pay can't be cut while in office, said Kirihara.

A voluntary system of pay waivers was initiated in October 2009 across the state.

Kirihara said it's not clear if the voluntary waiver system will continue into the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.