Inland courts brace for tougher year
Understaffed, overwhelmed, Riverside and San Bernardino county officials say the verdict is few options on further cuts
BY RICHARD K. De ATLEY
STAFF WRITER firstname.lastname@example.org
Like passengers on a plane with half the engines snuffed, Inland court officials can only wait and watch as Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed budget for next year fiscal year moves through the state’s political turbulence.
After four years of cuts reduced the statewide court budget by nearly $653 million — losses passed on to the state’s 58 superior courts, including $5.7 million slashed for Riverside County and $6.1 million for San Bernardino County courts for the current fiscal year — Brown has no further cuts proposed in his new budget.
But there’s a catch: Brown’s budget is based on his tax package getting approved. If it doesn’t, an additional $125 million in cuts to the courts will be imposed.
And court officials have expressed ambivalence about Brown’s proposed revenue plan of increasing fees and fines to raise $50 million.
“We do have money problems but the fees and fines are getting to be a problem for folks who are coming in for civil cases and family law cases,” said San Bernardino County Court Executive Officer Stephen H. Nash in a phone interview. “We do appreciate the governor’s support for new money, but we are not excited about higher fees.”
The interest in court funding is especially keen in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where courts for years have been seriously understaffed as the counties’ populations each soared past 2 million during the past decade.
The state Judicial Council funds county courts based on the number of of judicial officers, not population.
Riverside County has 76 judicial positions, including judges and commissioners, but a recent workload assessment report that was assigned by the state Judicial Council said it should have 150.
San Bernardino has 86 judges and commissioners combined, and likewise needs 150. The two courts have the highest caseloadsper-judge in the state for large population counties.
Another round of deep cuts could overwhelm their systems.
‘KEEP THE COURTS OPEN’
“The goal is to keep the courts open,” Riverside County Court Executive Officer Sherri Carter said. “We really want to do that without furloughs or layoffs because we don’t have the staff to do the work we have now.”
Riverside County officials fear a return to the backlogged court struggles of a few years ago, when civil cases sat unheard and a strike force of 12 judges was dispatched to the county to handle its longest-pending criminal cases.
Riverside County has depended for years on assigned judges — retired jurists sent by the state Administrative Office of the Courts to counties that need extra help with their case workload.
While the state pays the assigned judges’ salaries, the local courts have to pay for their courtroom personnel. And there is no extra staff in the clerk’s office to handle the work generated by the assigned judges.
Carter said the cost to the courts is “in the millions.”
Riverside County Superior Court has already reduced the number of assigned judges from 22 a day to 15, “and that just keeps our heads above water,” Riverside County Presiding Judge Sherrill Ellsworth said.
But “if we are looking under rocks” to save money, further cuts in the assigned judges program would have to be considered, she said.
Also threatened are the collaborative courts, in which prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation officers and social workers cooperate in programs designed to help selected defendants return to productive roles in society.
Veterans, domestic violence cases, and drug offenders are among the specialized courts.
“We have done a good job addressing those issues and being a full-service court,” Ellsworth said, but all of it is threatened by further substantial cuts, she said.
The state is not the only source of funds for the courts. But other sources such as grants and fees have also fallen, and Carter said the total loss to her budget for this year was $10.6 million.
The total operating funds from all state sources for the Riverside County court is about $132.2 million for this year. For San Bernardino County, the figure is $100.9 million.
Carter said Riverside County’s share of the triggered $125 million in cuts would be $5.2 million, which would be on top of previous cuts.
Nash said his court could potentially lose at least $8 million next fiscal year if the trigger cuts occur. “That would represent a substantial reduction that would be very difficult to absorb without some real impacts upon the public,” Nash said in an email.
Officials in both counties have frozen hiring and eliminated jobs to reduce courthouse staff over the past few years. There are 176 fewer court employees in Riverside County than in 2008, and 71 fewer positions in San Bernardino County than four years ago, and 70 current San Bernardino County court positions are unfilled.
Riverside County has combined operations and renegotiated or ended contracts as cost-cutting measures. Both courts have stepped up use of online and self-help services in recent years that have reduced lines at clerk windows.
“We started bracing for this storm a long time ago,” Ellsworth said.
There have been no raises for Riverside County court workers in the past three years.
San Bernardino County’s unionized court workers recently agreed to a pay cut of between 4 and 5 percent through furloughs in their most recent contract. Court days for facilities in Needles and Big Bear have been reduced from one week a month to three days a month.
The two courts have managed to avoid convulsive layoffs such as those in Los Angeles and San Joaquin counties, or getting emergency bailouts, as have courts in San Francisco and San Joaquin counties.
OUT OF OPTIONS
But officials for the Inland county courts say after nearly four years of trimming, they are running out of options.
“We’re down to the bone now,” Carter said. “If additional cuts are made, we are going to have to look at public services … we are going to have to make hard choices.
“At this point I am hoping for a miracle, because there is nothing left to cut,” she said.
Nash acknowledged that all of California’s stakeholders have faced deep cuts in the past few years.
“Schools, higher education, Medi-Cal — everyone is getting hammered. It is horrible across the board but the courts are really taking their lumps,” Nash said in a telephone interview. “The challenge for the Inland Empire courts is just that much worse … our resources are not sufficient to cover the workload.”
Nash said he also will take a one-day-a-month furlough pay cut along with the union workers. “I have complete respect for the employees and managers for stepping up and tightening their belts,” he said.
Ellsworth has also stepped into a cost-cutting role. Along with her administrative duties, she returned to the bench Friday to provide some extra help on settling civil cases that are ready for trial.
The court already has a “last-day” mediation system of volunteer attorneys and retired judges overseen by the Riverside County Bar Association’s dispute resolution service and supplemented by the Chapman University School of Law Mediation Clinic.
Ellsworth said she can put her 15 years of bench experience into the effort as well by taking the bench on Fridays.
“If I can settle one case a week, it is of great cost benefit not only to the court in terms of dollars but also to users of the court, because a trial costs them a great deal. I’m willing to roll up my sleeves and do my part,” she said.