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New chief, old story for proposed county court budget

E ven though new Chief Judge Jeffrey A. Kremers is working through the Milwaukee County budget process for the first time, he is all too familiar with the annual reductions to court operations proposed by County Executive Scott Walker.

In his 2009 proposal, Walker plans to abolish 27 staff positions, not mandated by the state, to help offset a multi-million dollar hole in the court’s budget.

But Kremers says the cuts, which constitute about 7 percent of total court staff, would severely slow processing of cases, collection of fines and docketing of judgments.

“I guess what he [Walker] does is rely on his campaign rhetoric of no new taxes and that determines what number he has to get to,” said Kremers. “Then he plays with people’s lives and jobs to get there.”

Walker is proposing a direct tax levy total of $38.6 million for combined court related operations in 2009, which is approximately $2 million more than this year.

Filling the Hole

Walker’s proposed personnel cuts are deeper than last year, when he advocated for the elimination of 15 jobs. The County Board restored all 15 of those positions in the final budget.

This year’s staff cuts were recommended due to the absence of $2 million in state funding.

The state resources were built into the county court budget proposal this year, but omitted from the final version of the biennium budget. In an effort to compensate for the gap, Walker proposed the elimination of 27 county-funded jobs which would result in a savings of more than $960,000.

Walker also said that for the second year in a row, the courts included approximately $2.8 million in its budget for revenue generated by fines and forfeitures. Since 1982, the Sheriff’s Department, which writes those tickets, has collected the revenue.

“The courts began with a $2 million hole and once again they included the fees collected for the Sheriff’s Department, so it’s more than a $4 million hole to fill,” said Walker.

“There just wasn’t enough tax levy to make up all of that.”

Kremers argued than in 71 other counties the revenue goes to the courts, which collect and process the fines.

“It will be very difficult to expect the clerk’s office to absorb cuts in positions and still expect them to process paperwork to collect $2.8 million,” said Kremers.

The most substantial cuts would be nine legal research interns who serve in a dual capacity as bailiffs and law clerks, according to Kremers. Walker plans to replace the interns with nine administrative assistants, at half the cost.

While neither group would receive benefits, salaries for the administrative interns would total only $190,000 compared to $420,000 for the legal interns.

Milwaukee County Clerk of Court John Barrett said he would have a tough time attracting people to do twice the work for half the pay.

“We have lawyers in those positions now and you are not going to get a lot them to provide bailiff services with no benefits for about $10 an hour,” said Barrett, who added that legal interns currently earn about $20 per hour.

Barrett also addressed eight deputy court clerk positions slated to be cut by Walker.

Barrett said that state statute requires clerks be present for court proceedings and if four in both the Misdemeanor/Traffic Division and Civil Division are eliminated, proceedings could be delayed.

“To pay three people to do their job in court [the judge, district attorney and court reporter] and sit around, because there’s not a clerk there, seems to me to be penny wise and pound foolish,” said Barrett.

TAD and AIM

While Walker’s budget calls for an almost $2 million increase to the tax levy for court-related operations, Kremers says the increase is misleading.

The proposal calls for $600,000 to launch a new universal screening program on July 1, 2009 to evaluate offenders in the county court system. The initiative is designed to provide the courts, Sheriff’s Department and Department of Corrections with better information regarding offender needs and sentencing.

But Kremers argued that Walker is not providing any additional county funds for the project and is simply “redirecting” state grant money allocated for two alternatives to incarceration programs.

Walker’s budget includes $500,000 state grant money for the Assess, Inform and Measure (AIM) program and more than $146,000 for the Treatment and Diversion (TAD) project.

“The county executive is expecting us to take state money specifically granted for those programs and use it for other purposes,” said Kremers. “We told him we cannot do that.”

But Walker had a different take, and said some of the grant money can be allocated for the screening project.

“A portion of it, yes, we believe it can be redirected,” said Walker.

Board to Evaluate Budget

The Milwaukee County Board will hold a public hearing on Walker’s budget proposal on Nov. 3 and adopt its amended version on Nov. 10.

Kremers declined to speculate on whether the Milwaukee County Board will restore staffing, but noted that members have been very supportive of the courts in recent years.

“I expect they will do the right thing, because they have in the past, and fix the county executive’s budget,” said Kremers.

Likewise, Walker said he could not predict what the board will do, since there are several new members.

“They have a pretty big gap to fill and I certainly do not predict it will pass as is,” said Walker. “But there’s no guarantee that because they restored positions before, it’s going to happen again this time.”

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