JUDGE O’NEILL TAKES CASE FOR COURT BUDGET TO GORELL

Ventura Superior Court Presiding Judge Vincent O’Neill urged a legislator not to support further cuts to California’s judicial budget that O’Neill said in a June 4 letter would “unnecessarily hamper” efforts to make the most out of already limited court services.

In his four-page letter to Jeff Gorell (R-37), O’Neill detailed layoffs, mandatory furloughs, shuttered service centers and other suspended or impaired operations that have already disrupted the county’s courtrooms. O’Neill also offered to make himself and court executive officer Michael Planet available to Gorell to discuss the court’s budget situation and future.

Statewide, judicial budget cuts have totaled $653 million over the past four fiscal years, of which all but $606 million of those cuts have occurred in trial courts. A proposed budget released in May details hundreds of millions of dollars in further cuts for the 2012-2013 fiscal year. These possible losses would leave the Ventura Superior court with a $13.3 million shortfall.

O’Neill’s letter disputes a claim in the proposed budget that trial court funding has increased since the 2007-2008 fiscal years.

“The conclusion is wrong because it is premised on the inclusion of facilities expenditures as part of trial court operations expenditures,” O’Neill wrote. Facilities expenditures have grown from $27 million to $195.5 million in that time period as the state took over 500 facilities from counties, but those funds don’t offset the $606 million in trial court reductions because courts can’t use facility funding to pay for operations.

“Thus, the perception that trial courts have been ‘held harmless’ from funding reductions is an inaccurate observation,” O’Neill wrote.

Calculations from the Department of Finance are inaccurate, the letter says, because they don’t address unavoidable increases in trial court expenses. These include $2.8 million in salary and benefit increases in the Ventura Superior Court over the last three years due to contracts arranged before the recession and $500,000 in increased costs for essential services like telecommunications and postage.

“Now it becomes clear why trial courts have been shedding staff, reducing services, and closing courtrooms: we have been subject to both significant cost increases and budget reductions,” O’Neill wrote.

The letter also details problems court officials anticipate with the revised budget’s plan to either use fund balances or allow them to revert to the state.

“Courts, like any public agency, cannot implement policy changes as far reaching as those proposed instantaneously,” the letter says. “Trial courts would be given less than 45 days notice that they may have to completely revise their spending plans. Moreover, as of yet, there is no detail as to how the fund balances will be allocated, or how the myriad of technical details will be addressed. In other words, real planning cannot begin until after the fiscal year has already started and the new policy already
applies.”

Details of problems posed by the proposed budget revisions were accompanied in the letter by descriptions of how the Ventura Superior Court has already changed its business practices and used technological innovations to reduce staffing and implement other cuts. The letter listed 13 steps the court has taken over the past four years to “operationalize” these cuts. Among them were a 20 percent reduction in the size of court operations staff, reductions in hours of service, closing the Colonia Self-Help Center, suspension of a host of operations at the East County Courthouse in Simi Valley, and other limitations and delays on services and operations.

Staff reductions required by the budget cuts led to an inability to support the Simi Court’s three bench officers, the letter said. This decision has understandably caused great concern among county, city and law enforcement officials in the east county,” the letter says. “There will be significant costs to those agencies if traffic and code enforcement officers must spend time driving to Ventura for trials. There will also be additional cars on the roads and much inconvenience to citizens involved in small civil disputes, landlord-tenant issues and victims of violence and other abuse who need restraining orders on an emergency basis.”

The letter also says limits on court-provided court reporters will lead to higher costs for family law litigation and this could mean a loss of control over how official records for civil and family law proceedings are produced.

O’Neill urged Gorell to vote against language for a “trailer bill” in the proposed budget. That language would mean the judicial branch would lose much of its ability to decide how new cuts are distributed in the judicial branch, the letter says, and would mean that trial courts will continue to absorb future cuts.

“In sum, I urge that you carefully consider the importance of a fully-functioning judiciary as you deliberate and vote on the 2012-13 state budget,” O’Neill wrote. “As explained above, continuing cuts will have continuing local consequences for the citizens of Ventura County. These consequences can be minimized if trial courts retain the ability to maintain and fund balances and the judiciary is not stripped of its discretion to allocate any cuts in the best interest of the people of our state.”

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