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From Los Angeles to Yolo County, courts tighten belts

Staff Writer

The Fresno County courts saved $520,000 this year by privatizing their janitorial services. They also renegotiated a computer services contract to save another $300,000. Excess office supplies - everything from paper and pens to inboxes - are "surplused," or used in lieu of new supplies, for what executive officer Tamara Beard hopes will be a savings of $100,000.

In Yolo County, all 110 court employees, with the exception of one criminal department, agreed to take off eight days without pay at the end of last year. Such unpaid furloughs probably won't be necessary this year, said Presiding Judge Michael Sweet, but further budget cuts might result in eliminating some of the court calendar, most likely Prop 36 drug cases, and lowering the priority family cases now receive.

"We don't think we can take any more cuts."

In Los Angeles County, where 583 courtrooms are authorized, an additional 29 courtrooms were added over the years, staffed by pro tems, retired commissioners and retired assigned judges, easing the caseload somewhat, said Presiding Judge Robert A. Dukes. When the budget ax fell, those 29 courtrooms were shuttered.

The courts also renegotiated their contract with sheriffs deputies for a one-year $10 million savings, cut back on services and supplies and laid off, for the first time in its history, full-time workers.

Throughout the state, courts are closing public counters early, dumping night court, shutting down some facilities and losing staff, either through layoffs or attrition.

And without some sort of miracle uptick in the state's coffers, the worst is yet to come.

Dukes said if the Judicial Council's worst case projection of a $312 million shortfall comes true, Los Angeles will absorb one-third - a staggering $100 million less than it needs.

"We won't have any blood left," he said. "I think 'unimaginable' is what they'd tell you," said Dukes of a group of judges currently reviewing the county courts' options. "It's hard for them even to conceive of where we will be if this plays out the way it looks."

Dukes said when the 2003 fiscal year budget was adopted in September, the Los Angeles courts were $57 million in the red, thanks to an across-the-board 3.7 percent reduction by trial courts plus another $30 million in unfunded mandates. The mid-year budget reductions required by the governor led to further belt-tightening.

Because the county is so large, Dukes said it takes three to six months for the effects of such reductions to be felt. Now, "judges are complaining about everything from mail not being delivered on time to not being able to get supplies to increased caseloads because of the downsizing," he said.

If further cutbacks are required, as seems likely, the next 18 months will be "breathtaking, absolutely breathtaking," Dukes said.

"Imagine if the largest court in the state starts telling all our users, thousands of people who come here on a weekly basis, that we can't tend to them. When those things start to play out in our court, we are talking about not fulfilling our constitutional duty."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, and the state, Yolo County's Sweet fears his entire system might shut down if another 10 percent is slashed from its budget. "Depending on how bad a cut it will be, we might not be able to function. It could be very, very dire for Yolo County if we were forced to take even a 5 percent cut."

In Fresno County, where a $38 million budget supports 44 judges in 16 different locations, 22 positions are vacant. Twenty-nine more vacancies will be needed to get through the year, said executive officer Beard.

Backlogs are growing steadily in all divisions. Sixty days in traffic. An expansion of the jail means 1,500 more defendants are going to criminal court per month. A recent focus on settling or getting civil cases to trial quickly has meant an increase from one to four judges dedicated strictly to civil matters. It's also meant a big bump in the division's workload.

"We're trying not to impact the courtrooms," Beard added. "But we will have reduced hours eventually."

Enough of the courts' 480 employees signed up for furloughs to save two positions in the coming year.

Beard herself signed up for two weeks. "Nobody's immune, nobody's exempt," she said.

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