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Board sets dues at $390 for 2003

California's active attorneys will again pay dues of $390 next year, after the State Bar Board of Governors voted unanimously last month to maintain the current fee level.

Inactive lawyers will pay dues of $50, and attorneys who earn less than $40,000 again will have the option of paying less.

The vote came the same day the board rejected a staff-recommended budget which would have postponed seismic improvements to the bar's headquarters building in San Francisco and instead voted to put $1 million in the $49.2 million budget for the upgrade.

The governors did, however, agree to a staff recommendation that a proposed member services center be tabled for several years.

As approved, the general fund will have a deficit of just under $1 million next year, although a reserve fund is expected to make up the difference. In 2007, however, the deficit will climb to nearly $7.5 million, according to a six-year projection provided by chief financial officer Sam Quan.

Executive Director Judy Johnson had urged the board to not fund the seismic upgrade or the $750,000 member services center as a matter of fiscal prudence. Funding both projects, she said, may eventually require layoffs, even though all the budget scenarios the staff offered assume that 65 positions which are now vacant will remain unfilled.

Johnson said the current budget is extremely lean and does not include raises for staff, other than step increases. Dues would have to rise to $430 to fully fund projected expenses, she said.

The legislature authorized the bar to set its fee at $390 for 2002 and 2003, so it is unable to charge any more. Of that amount, $335 goes to the general fund, $10 to the building fund to pay off the bar's mortgage on its 180 Howard St. building in San Francisco, $35 is set aside for the Client Security fund and $10 funds the Lawyer Assistance Program for attorneys suffering from substance abuse or mental health problems.

Several board members suggested the bar take out a loan to cover the seismic upgrade of its headquarters building, which is estimated to cost $2.5 million. Others thought it would be better to wait until the mortgage is paid off in 2006 and do the work then.

"We have received some vigorous statements" about the building's structural problems, said board member Russ Roeca of San Francisco, referring to an engineering firm's report last year. "We are at risk. We have to do the work."

Although he said he was unsure about how serious the threat of an earthquake is to the building, John Van de Kamp of Los Angeles agreed that the board should not delay the seismic work. Referring to the engineer's recommendation, he said, "I'm concerned that we have a record now and we need to go ahead."

The board also was torn about a member services center, designed to answer attorneys' questions when they cannot get help from the website or elsewhere. There currently is no central number lawyers can call, and the bar gets numerous complaints from members that their inquiries are bounced around and never answered. In the end, though, the board put off that project.

Johnson said the staff made its projections mindful that bar members are "obsessed" with the dues level, which is the seventh highest in the nation and next year will be eighth. "The dues are lower than they were 10 years ago," Johnson said, alluding to a year when the fee was $478. "That's a long time to have a flat fee."

She said the budget adopted by the board means "no new programs or activities with the current level of staffing, which already is 25 percent below what we had when Gov. Wilson vetoed the fee bill in 1997." That bill, she pointed out, would have set fees at $458, far higher than they are today.

But another Los Angeles governor, Pat Dixon, who voted for the staff-recommended budget, said the board needs to be responsive to lawyers' unhappiness with dues. "Whether we like it or not, our members are obsessed with the fee and they are right," he said. Keeping the dues at the current level "sends a message that we get it. Our members want a low dues bill."

As has been the case for two years, lawyers will be able to deduct $10 from their dues-$5 for lobbying and $5 for an elimination of bias fund-if they choose.

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