County Executive Scott Walker’s proposed budget excludes a request by the Milwaukee County Circuit Court to shift $2.4 million in revenue from the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department.
The fallout is a series of proposed court-related cuts to compensate for the “lost” revenue including the elimination of 15.5 personnel positions, which have put the system in a deeper hole, said 1st District Chief Judge Kitty K. Brennan.
“Once again the county executive has cut the Milwaukee County Circuit Courts signficantly,” said Brennan. “He has not only cut millions of dollars from our budget, but he has abolished positions.”
Walker’s budget calls for about $42.9 million in funding for the courts, which on paper is approximately the same as 2007 ($42.7 million). But he noted that tax levy support for the courts will decrease by $634,000 in 2008.
“In essence, court spending remains about the same, but the budget problem was having to reduce (the court’s) request to backfill for the revenue that should not have been counted as courts revenue,” said county Budget Director Cynthia Archer. “Hence, the [staff] reductions proposed in the 2008 budget.”
The court’s budget included a request for $2.4 million in revenue generated by tickets written by the sheriff’s department. But as Walker did in 2007, he denied the court’s request and elected to keep the revenue with the sheriff’s department.
“When the budget requests came in, both the sheriff and the courts counted this revenue in their budget,” said Archer. “Obviously, we could not count the same revenue in two places. The revenue has been accounted for in the sheriff’s office for quite some time, so we left it there in the 2008 budget.”
The money created by the tickets has been given to the sheriff’s department since a 1982 change in county policy which, Harvey said, was based on discussions at the time that the state planned to fund county court operations.
Prior to 1982, that ticket revenue had gone to the courts, which collect and process the tickets.
“What Milwaukee County was doing was to try to pull any revenue out of the court system and put it into other departments because of the possibility that the state would absorb county court costs,” said Harvey.
State funding at the anticipated level never materialized and Harvey said that increasing budget constraints have forced the courts to request the revenue be returned, but it would not be necessary if the tax levy were increased.
“Basically, in looking at costs, we said a decision made years ago by the county may not necessarily be in the best interests of the courts budget now,” said Harvey, adding that other county court systems in the state receive similar revenue. “All things being equal, we would not even be pushing for this if adequate funding was provided.”
Walker noted that the 1st District’s assumption that the revenue would be included in their budget was part of the reason personnel cuts were made. In an effort to close the gap, 15.5 positions would be eliminated at a savings of about $900,000 from the court’s requested budget.
“Our problem then became, how are we going to backfill for $2.4 million in ‘revenue loss’ in the courts,” said Archer. “For that reason, we had to identify expenditure reductions to fill the hole that was created by the courts assuming revenue that was not really court revenue.”
Among the proposed personnel cuts are all nine law clerk positions, which Brennan said would be a devastating blow to system in terms of cost and efficiency.
The clerks primarily provide support service in the Civil Division and to the chief judge. Additionally, they help expedite cases though the system and their loss could slow the processing and decrease the number of civil cases heard.
“Without the law clerks, the right to a speedy civil trial in this community will be affected and the public’s access to justice will be impaired,” said Milwaukee Bar Association President David A. Westrup. “The proposed cuts therefore undermine basic operations of the Court’s Civil Division.”
Elimination of the clerks would result in a savings of about $406,000, according to Walker’s budget.
Harvey contended that each clerk accounts for $48,000 in funding and, if eliminated, the alternative would be staffing the Civil Division with bailiffs at a significantly higher price.
“A bailiff costs $90,000 so when you don’t have the law clerks and each judge is now saying I want my bailiff, 12 of them (in civil) will cost about $1 million,” said Harvey. “I don’t get it.”
Also included in the proposed cuts are two deputy court clerk positions, one each in the Misdemeanor/Traffic and Civil Divisions, as well as two clerical assistants in the Misdemeanor/Traffic Division.
Walker noted that roughly half (6.5) of the positions proposed for elimination are currently vacant and two clerical assistant positions set to be cut in the Register in Probate Office are unfunded.
Those points mattered little to Brennan, who pointed to the 2006 Milwaukee County Audit of Combined Courts Operations, which recommended no additional cuts in staffing.
“The auditors said the courts had no fat to cut and should not be cut any further,” said Brennan. “At the bare minimum we need these positions restored.”
Harvey said another unpleasant “surprise” in Walker’s budget was a change in cross charging and abatement policies. The process typically involves charging for information technical support or facilities management between departments and subsequent reimbursement by the county.
In the case of the courts, an additional $5.6 million in tax levy was included for cross charges in 2008, but that does not translate into additional funding.
“The increase in county service charges reflects a change in the way we are accounting for internal service charges,” said Archer. “In 2008 we are budgeting these costs directly in department budgets and increasing their levy to pay for it. Overall, this is really a wash for the departments and the county as a whole.”
But Harvey said that not only was the district unaware of this change when its budget was submitted, but the reimbursement is about $600,000 short.
“It’s a real subtlety of the budget in that this year the county said we’re going to charge you directly and give you a tax levy to pay for it,” said Harvey. “But did they give us all of it? No.”
The Milwaukee County Board began reviewing Walker’s budget proposal on Oct. 5.