Tight budget puts squeeze on court

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN BRENDA CONYERS
In her annual State of the Judiciary message given to legislators earlier in March, Chief Justice Kay McFarland said $3 million in budgetary cuts by the Division of Budget will force the judicial branch to continue its hiring freeze unless the funds are restored by the legislature.


The executive budget is turned over directly to the legislative branch for approval. But the judicial budget first goes to the governor for his recommendations, then to the legislature.


“This time our (operations budget) was cut $300,000 instead of $1 million as it was last year,” McFarland said. “But other, less obvious, wounds were inflicted.”


McFarland noted in her report that statewide staffing level for the judicial branch has increased only 2.2 percent over the past 10 years despite a 38.8 percent increase in the number of case filings in the major categories of civil, domestic relations and criminal cases.


According to Ron Keefover, education-information officer for the Office of Judicial Administration, the court system has been in a “hiring delay of 60 days” since last September, and the future “looks grim” at this moment.


“We’ve had hiring delays for the last eight years,” he said. “And that can put smaller, rural systems in a tight spot.”


With the hiring delay in place, when a judicial employee leaves a position, he or she is not replaced for 60 days, leaving an office with an increasing workload but one less employee.


Keefover said the delay does save money, but with a smaller system like Marion County, which only has one district court clerk, to have that position empty for 60 days would add a significant load on the judge and other court employees.


The judicial branch in Kansas has about 1,800 employees. The largest part of the budget is spent on salaries. Keefover said the staffing and work concerns associated with budget cuts “get lost” in the legislature.


“We are the only state unity with a 97 percent budget expenditure on our employees,” Keefover said.


Mike Powers, Eight Judicial District Judge, said: “We aren’t like other departments, like Road and Bridge, that might be able to delay a road project or the purchase of equipment for a time. We can’t say no to our employees.”


In the event the budget cuts are not restored by the legislature, the judicial branch is exploring a variety of options.


Besides continuing the hiring delay, Powers said there has been some discussion about the possibility of furloughs, whereby district courts may be closed.


Jan Helmer, clerk of the district court, said this would mean the entire third floor of the courthouse in Marion would be closed.


Powers said the budget problems have taken several years to get to the point they are today.


He said the court system actually works with two budgets: a local, which is responsible for the operating budget, and the state budget, which covers salaries.


He said the Supreme Court already worked hard to cut the budget “to the bone,” recognizing the financial situation of the state.


But when Gov. Bill Graves cut more money out of an already “austere budget,” Powers said it just “isn’t the best situation.”


Two financial issues now confront the court system: how to finish this year on the current budget, and how to work through next year with a proposed decrease in the requested basic budget.


“There is no fluff to the budget for next year,” Powers said. “It is basic operating money.”


Powers said while the 60-day hiring delays had helped the finances, turnover had decreased within the system.


In recent years, a series of enhancements had been given to non-judicial employees who had been working for a salary base less than private businesses.


The enhancements came through increased filing fees and court costs, and not from tax money, Powers said.


But with the increases, the employee turnover decreased and the money wasn’t saved.


Powers appreciates the situation, but he said he also is concerned about the effects of the considered furlough on his staff.


“I have to worry about the staff,” Powers said. “It may feel like a holiday to have a day off, but it is an unpaid holiday.”


Depending of the frequency of furlough days, Powers said he was also concerned about the ability of the staff to keep up with the workload and the general morale.


“We will still process the same amount of cases, and it will take the same amount of time to process the cases, but we might just have less time to do it in,” he said.


Powers said the general population may not realize it, but the eighth judicial district, which includes Geary, Morris and Marion counties, and is one of the busiest court systems in the state.


“We’re right there after Wichita, Topeka, Johnson and Wyndotte counties,” Powers said. “In fact, the Supreme Court had requested two additional judges to help with the workload-and one of them was for Geary County in our district.”


In her report, Chief Justice McFarland said one key to the solution is for the legislature to handle the budget directly rather than going through the executive branch first.


“We ask only to present our requested budget directly to the legislative branch,” she said.


However, a bill presented to make such a change did not pass.


The legislature is back in session for the final budgetary considerations.

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