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Court, county join in budget effort

A budget row between Milwaukee County and the court system there evolved this month into a broader campaign that is headed for the State Capitol.

Court and county officials resolved, at least for now, court leaders’ objections to County Executive Scott Walker’s proposed courts budget by jointly supporting an amendment that restores most of the court positions that were to be cut and provides some funding to maintain the Legal Resource Center, pending an attempt to persuade the state to fully reimburse Milwaukee County’s costs for guardian ad litem and interpreter fees in 2004.

According to a staff memorandum presented to the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors’ Finance and Audit Committee that outlined the amendment, the county expects to incur more than $3 million in guardian ad litem and interpreter fees in 2004, but its reimbursement under the state’s current formula is only anticipated to total slightly more than $1 million. The committee voted to adopt the amendment last week even though the memorandum conceded that “there is no guarantee” that the county will be successful in seeking the approximately $2 million in additional revenues.

“We were very concerned with the budget as proposed by Executive Walker, but nevertheless we agree with him and the board that we, meaning all three branches of government, need to work together to address the issue of funding with the state, which has long underfunded the county’s court operations,” Chief Judge Michael Sullivan told the committee at its meeting last week.

“What seemed to be a local issue has become a statewide one,” Sullivan added. He said that court officials were working with members of the legal profession “to bring the funding inequity to the attention of the state’s policymakers.”

County Executive’s Support

Walker said in a telephone interview that one reason he supported the budget amendment was that Sullivan and the Finance and Audit Committee chairman had made it clear that if there did not appear to be signs of progress by next July, when the amendment requires the clerk of court to report back to the board on status of the effort to obtain the additional revenue, the expectation would be that corrective cuts would be made to the courts’ budget.

The full county board is expected to vote on the proposed budget in early November, Walker said.

In a telephone interview later, Sullivan said that the effort was more likely to be successful than prior attempts to increase state funding for courts.

“What’s been suggested in the past by the county is that the state take over all of the funding of the courts, and the state has been unwilling to do that,” he said. “But the state has made a commitment and acknowledged a responsibility to fund the guardian ad litem and interpreter fees, but just simply has not fulfilled that obligation to this point.”

Clerk of Court John Barrett said in an interview after the meeting that if efforts to obtain an increase in funding for guardian ad litem and interpreter fees through the legislative process prove unsuccessful, he believes litigation could follow. Barrett said that he anticipated that a court could order the state to pay an appointed guardian ad litem’s fees and if it did not, the attorney might pursue recovery of the fees from the state through the court system.

Walker said that the possibility that the state could be compelled to more appropriately fund court operations was part of the case that was made to him in support of the budget compromise.

Possible MBA Support

Daniel Blinka, the president of the Milwaukee Bar Association, said he was “extremely supportive” of the decision to attempt to obtain additional funding from the state through a change in the reimbursement formula.

“It would be my intent to secure a resolution from our board of directors also supporting this and then to call upon our membership to do whatever it can to assist Milwaukee County in changing the law,” he said.

Blinka said he did not see litigation to compel full state funding of the fees as imminent.

“That’s a possibility, but right now what we are contemplating is not a lawsuit but rather a change in state law working through and with the legislature,” he said, adding, “Part of this is convincing the legislature that not only is this good public policy; it is also a constitutional obligation to fund adequately the courts.”

Milwaukee attorney Nicholas Zales, who serves on the board of governors for the State Bar of Wisconsin, said that he believed that the bar’s executive committee likely would be considering at one of its upcoming meetings whether it would become involved in the drive to inc
rease state funding for guardian ad litem and interpreter fees.

“I guess the first question is would this be good for the state overall?” he said.

Zales, who said he has long taken an interest in the issue of state funding for courts, said his view was that a statewide change likely would be beneficial.

“I think that overall, as a matter of the constitution of the State of Wisconsin, we shouldn’t have local officials setting forth the budget for state courts.”

Walker said that he sees a potential increase in state guardian ad litem and interpreter fee reimbursement as a first step in that direction.

“Hopefully, this is just a stopgap step in between here and the long-term goal of getting complete state funding of courts,” he said.

Walker said he would not expect the state to fully fund courts without a reciprocal agreement for a comparable reduction in shared revenue or other state aid to the county, but he would be willing to make that trade because county government has less control over courts than other county departments.

“From a long-term standpoint, when you traditionally have the courts asking for 9 and 10 percent increases, there’s really next to nothing that I can do to try and stop that short of a budget confrontation,” he said. “It just makes more sense for me to be in a situation where I don’t have to continue to fund that system at a rate that’s considerably higher than my social service and quality-of-life programs.”

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