The California state budget signed yesterday returns approximately $900,000 to the county courts which will stave off some planned layoffs, keep one courtroom slated for closure open and possibly restore some of the public service hours as long as permanent funding comes in January.
However, the partial restoration of court funding isn’t enough to keep all of the threatened cuts at bay.
“This is a solid first step but it needs to be followed by essential funding,” said Court Executive Officer John Fitton.
The new budget includes $60 million for the state’s trial courts which includes the $900,000 for San Mateo County Superior Court. The funds will restore one courtroom planned for closure, one commissioner and seven staff members and raise the possibility of eventually re-expanding truncated counter and phone hours.
However, Fitton and Presiding Judge Robert Foiles said while grateful for the $60 million it must be viewed in light of $261 million in current cuts and mounting deficits from prior years of unprecedented slashing of funds.
“It’s clear the damage can’t be repaired overnight,” Fitton said.
San Mateo County’s court system has admittedly not been hit as hard as some such as Los Angeles and San Diego where layoffs number in the hundreds but then again those jurisdictions are substantially greater, too. San Mateo County’s court staff has dropped 34 percent from a high of 385 in 2008 to a projected 254 this fall.
Even with the extra money from the state budget, the county court will still eliminate four court commissioner positions, of which three are filled, and seven staff members, while closing four courtrooms and suspending nearly all court services in the South San Francisco and San Mateo branches. Two judges will remain at the South San Francisco branch for preliminary hearings and the San Mateo branch will be used for trials as determined by the presiding judge.
Local judges and court officials have been warning of cuts and prepping the public for months, particularly as they absorbed a $2.72 million loss and braced for another $5.4 million in fiscal year 2012-13. Last September, the court issued word of up to six courtrooms closing along with shortened public service hours and possible layoffs. The court also made good on some of those warnings by consolidating traffic courts and moving family law and restraining order matters to the Hall of Justice in Redwood City.
Beginning July 15, the criminal clerk’s office and calendars in the South San Francisco branch will be moved to Redwood City.
While the consolidations are smart fiscally, Foiles and Fitton said they create challenges to residents who must travel farther to attend court or use its services.
“Our very democracy relies on a solid, working justice system and this system is threatened by these unacceptable cuts,” Foiles said in a prepared statement.
Like local reaction, that of California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye was a mixture of pleasure about the $60 million and concern about the remaining budget shortfalls.
“On the one hand, this is the first time in the last five years that the judicial branch has not suffered additional cuts,” Cantil-Sakauye said in a prepared statement. “On the other hand, we have a long way to go. ... Although the extra [money] for the branch in this year’s budget allows us to start rebuilding ... it absolutely won’t be enough to provide the kind of access to justice the public deserves.”
(650) 344-5200 ext. 102