Friday, May 2, 2008

What information did the courts provide to the council?

Members of the Carroll County Council have expressed their surprise at the announcement by the Carroll County Judges that they will be required to file a mandate to address the failure of the Council to provide essential funding. The following statement was read to the Council prior to their final decision by Judge Smith. Judge Currie also plainly advised the Council of the impossibility of operating the courts under the proposed budgets.

The Carroll County Courts have been requested to make the following additional reductions:

Carroll Circuit Court budget $20,000
Carroll Superior Court budget $20,000
Carroll Joint Court budget $50,000

The budgets approved for the courts by the council in September for 2008 resulted in a significant reduction from prior years. Later, at the request of the Council, the judges made additional reductions to bring both court budgets and the joint court budget in line with the 2003 budget.

The Council without consulting with the judges further reduced the joint court budget by transferring payment of the probation office secretary and the chief probation officer from the joint court budget to the supplemental adult probation users fees. This was in violation of a recent court holding that supplemental adult probation users fees can only be used to supplement probation services and not to pay for services already being provided through the general fund and that appropriation from the fund must be at the request of the courts.

It should be noted that the joint court budget submitted by the judges for 2008 included funds for indigent counsel based upon prior years. There is no reason to belive the cost of indigent counsel will go down in 2008. The original budget approved for 2008 already cut those funds below what will be expended in 2008. The costs for indigent counsel providing to us by the council at the last meeting indicates that the per diem cost for indigent counsel is 17% below the state average.

The additional reductions requested can only be achieved through the elimination of a court reporter in each court. That would leave the Circuit Court with only one court reporter. During the court reporter's vacation or when the court reporter is sick, there would be no court reporter available. During jury trials, there would be no one left to keep the court offices open. A single court reporter would be in the court room twice as much as she presently is and would have twice as much office work to do with half of the time she previously had to do it. The Superior Court would have the same problem even though it has a part-time court report. There is a part-time court report in the Superior Court because the full-time court reporters cannot get all of the work done. Because of the nature of the caseload of the Superior Court, there are more court hearings and more orders to be written. The Superior Court has more than 600 criminal cases every year. The Circuit Court has less than 100 criminal cases each year. There is little if any difference in the time required in doing the clerical work for a criminal case in Circuit Court and a criminal case in Superior Court. It is remarkable that we are keeping up most of the time now.

The suggestion by the county council that a court reporter can be eliminated by sharing staff incorrectly assumes that the staff of either court has down time with nothing to do. We do share staff during extraordinary circumstances and sometimes use probation staff to keep the courts functioning.
This sharing enabled us to function without adding employees.

The non-compensatory portion of the Carroll Superior Court budget consists of items such as office supplies, printing, postage, maintenance of equipment, copy expenses, etc. These are fixed expenses that do not vary from year to year because the caseload does not vary from year to year. The non-compensatory portion of the 2008 budget is not only lower than the 2003 budget but lower than the 1992 budget. Additional reductions would impair the ability of the court to function. Elimination of the entire non-compensatory portion of the budget would reduce the total budget by less than one-half of the amount requested by the council.

Non-Compensation Portion of Superior Court Budget
1992 $10,680.00
2003 $12,200.00
2008 (82% of 1992 budget; 72% of 2003 budget) $8,760.00

The county council has determined that an additional reduction in the county general fund budget is necessary and, without apparent rhyme nor reason, has demanded that the judges of the Carroll County courts reduce their budgets by an additional $90,000. Cuts in spending should not be determined by arbitrary amounts or percentages. A 5% cut by one office or department may have more serious ramifications than a 20% cut some where else. It was difficult for the courts to make the reductions that are already in place when the court operations were already very efficient. Further reductions are impossible.

The county council has made a general demand for additional reductions without reference to any line item in the court budgets because the council members know that further reductions in any line item will effect the ability of the courts to function. When they approved the budget for 2007, the council intended to have a very conservative budget providing only for the essentials. The council is now seeking to reduce the budget approved in 2007 for the Circuit Court budget by 30%; for the Superior Court budget by 28%; and for the Joint Court budget by 44%.

The council is engaging in "magical thinking." - the ability to draw conclusions that are based on a person's desire for what reality should be, not necessarily upon what reality actually is. The council apparently believe:
There will be a significant reduction in crime during the balance of 2008;
Those who do commit crimes will all be employed and have sufficient cash reserves to employ their own attorney;
Carroll County courts will become the first in the nation to achieve the paperless office;
Domestic tranquility in Carroll County will eliminate divorce;
Carroll County citizens will resolve their own disputes and everyone will pay their bills eliminating the need for a small claims court; and
One court reporter will be able to do the job of two, preparing orders in the office while recording in the courtroom at the same time.

What is the bottom line? The funds necessary for office supplies, printing, copying, postage, maintenance, public defenders, translators, transcripts, per diem for jurors, and staffing are all determined by caseload. We, as judges do not control the number of cases filed. We can use the funds available efficiently, and because we have done so in the past, there is no room now for further reductions.