Courts ready to slash despite cash 

click to enlarge The governor’s new budget sends about $60 million back to cash-starved trial courts around the state. - MIKE KOOZMIN/S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner file photo
  • The governor’s new budget sends about $60 million back to cash-starved trial courts around the state.

The San Mateo County courts may be in for a slight reprieve after the ink dries on Gov. Jerry Brown's signature on the state budget, though it probably won't save them from bloodletting. In fact, Court Executive Officer John Fitton objects to the term "reprieve," characterizing the Legislature's projected restoration as a much-appreciated gesture, but a somewhat dubious silver lining.

"In a nutshell, it would be like someone saying, 'We're going to cut your salary in half, so plan on that for a year,' then they say, 'Guess what, we're going to cut your salary in half, but we'll give you a thousand dollars.'" He explained that San Mateo County's courts are handling the budget news with as much wariness as any frugal adult. If money trickles into their coffers over the next few months, they'll cut slightly less than they were originally planning.

At this point, Fitton is reluctant to estimate how much less, since Brown still has to sign the revised budget. The governor's conservative May revise denied funds to the courts, instead dividing the state's $4.6 billion personal income tax window among schools and other social resources. But the Legislature proposed $100 million in court restoration, leading the two branches to compromise on $63 million. About $60 million would go to the state's 58 trial courts, leaving the rest for appeals.

While some counties, such as Los Angeles, decided to cut staff already, San Mateo County is waiting to see where the dust settles.

"Other courts are implementing actions now because they perhaps hadn't taken operational cuts in the past," Fitton said. "We've operationalized already, so our reductions won't be as dramatic."

"Operationalizing" meant sucking up a $1 billion loss over the past five years and eliminating 120 staff positions, 27 of which were layoffs. County residents have certainly seen the consequences already. San Mateo County's traffic court used to have a full workforce and a mandate to pick up the phone by the third ring. Now people calling in often wait up to 45 minutes.

And that's a relatively small fry compared to some of the other backlogs. A survey conducted by the state's Trial Court Presiding Judges' Advisory Committee showed that San Mateo County could take up to seven months to process default judgments. People have to wait up to three hours in line at the court's self-help center, owing to staff cuts. There are fewer workshops for people having to represent themselves, fewer Spanish translation services and less assistance for people with child support or domestic violence cases.

But once this year's cuts go into effect, San Mateo County may still have to eliminate five commissioners -- or judge assistants -- and up to two dozen other employees. It might also slash three trial departments and consolidate traffic, small claims and unlawful detainer cases. The county court has done an admirable job of creating efficiencies in the past -- with everything from fewer court reporters to an automated traffic calendar -- but after the next bloodbath, it might be left with too few resources to adequately serve the public.

Fitton says that in two weeks he'll have a clearer idea what will stay and what will go.

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