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Tight circuit court budgets lead to some cuts

ImageThroughout the state, circuit court administrators are walking an invisible line between balancing budgets and sustaining services.

As interest and other revenues fall and countywide costs for wages, health care and utilities increase, some courts are faced with cutting the one asset that dominates their payrolls: personnel.

The result is a combination of working smarter and working harder that, some officials warn, could lead to an unenviable endgame.

“You can’t shut it down. You can make it ugly, but you can’t shut it down,” said Bob Snow, business manager for the Waukesha County Circuit Court.

With 12 judges, five full-time court commissioners and about 100 support staff, Snow has had to find ways to cut jobs — and costs — for each of the last four years.

In the past, that’s meant not filling a position when someone retired or left.

Cutting Hours

This year, it meant cutting people’s hours; two county-funded court reporters, used to help commissioners, were taken from full-time to three-quarter-time, while two other support staff jobs were reduced from full-time to half-time.

Total savings: about $92,055.

With 70 percent of his courts’ roughly $9 million budget devoted to personnel expenses, limited revenue growth and few areas to raise fees, Snow said it was finally the only option left.

“The only way to get significant cost reductions is to lose people,” Snow said.

Jeffrey Schmidt, clerk of circuit court for Ozaukee County, has come to understand that equation all too well.

Throughout the last 10 years, Schmidt has lost four circuit court jobs to budget cuts. This year, tight finances cost him two part-time staffers — jobs that will save him nearly $30,000 in the coming years.

The savings were mitigated by the purchase of a $10,000 recording system, a spend-money-to-make-money option that allowed the court to trim a $14,000-a-year court reporter from the payroll.

The other lost job was for a researcher, paid $15,000 annually.

That development might please some law students, who could be tapped to voluntarily do research for the county’s three judges. But it was a bitter decision for Schmidt, who said he’s cut his court about all he can.

“I’ve been playing the game, making the cuts that the county has asked me to make. I have nothing left to give,” Schmidt said.

Combating Rising Costs

That so-called game isn’t any easier for the counties, Ozaukee County Administrator Tom Meaux said.

“It’s the environment we live in,” he said.

Soaring gas prices earlier this year put Ozaukee County $3 million over its countywide fuel budget of $18 million in 2008. That money had to come from somewhere.

In this case, it came from cutting 11 jobs countywide, including the two circuit court posts.

And there could be more cuts to come.

“It’s ongoing,” Meaux said. “We’ve raised everyone’s awareness, if these trends continue there will be more substantial cuts needed.”

That could mean fewer work hours, fewer jobs or fewer services.

“All of those issues will be on the table,” Meaux said.

Increasing Fees

Some courts are trying to make room at that table by making money. For the courts, that’s limited to increasing some fees or using tax intercept, among other tools, to get more aggressive with collections.

In Waukesha County, the court raised fees from $800 to $900 for child custody and visitation studies.

In Ozaukee County, filing fees will in-crease in 2009, which should raise $125,000. That’s up from $120,000 in 2008 and $109,000 in 2007.

In Dunn County, officials raised overall levels for county-issued tickets. Projected revenues based on that bump call for at least a $20,000 increase in fines and forfeitures.

All Dunn County departments were asked to cut costs by 3.75 percent this year, partly because costs for the county’s tax-funded health center and nursing home jumped from $250,000 to $750,000, Smith said.

Jobs cuts were needed in the county, but not in the circuit court. No court work hours were cut either, although plans were scrapped to increase hours for two part-time staffers.

“We were very lucky,” said Court Clerk Clara Minor, who still considers herself “blessed” after losing $50,000 from her budget — $20,000 cut by her governing committee without her input and another $30,000 she found after a lot of number “crunching.”

The cuts left Minor with a $782,826 budget for 2009, for a court with two judges, two part-time commissioners and 12 support staff.

Minor said she can accept the reductions, which she had to make with only 2 ½ days notice. But she said she feels they have left her court at “bare bones.” And she struggles with the fact that the measures might not be enough.

“Do you know how many citations have to be written and collected on for the county to retain $20,000?” Minor asked.

And what about necessary services, like interpreters or guardians ad litem? Demand for both goes up every year.

As part of the cut package, compensation for guardians ad litem was reduced in Dunn County. But, Smith and Minor said, the cut might be meaningless.

If the service is needed, it must be provided. And if it is provided, some payment must be made.

Same for trials.

“I can’t tell people they can’t have a jury trial because my budget is too low,” Minor said. “It’s kind of scary.”

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