The Milwaukee County court system kept its doors open this year thanks to some resourceful budgeting which resulted in only one day in which limited services were available.
But 2011 could be a different story.
County Executive Scott Walker’s $1.3 billion proposed budget includes $17 million in yet to be agreed upon concessions by union workers, along with pay freezes, increased employee contributions to health care and employee pension contributions.
Wage and benefit cuts for the courts would total about $960,000, but court officials are more concerned with the bigger picture.
Absent the labor agreements by the end of the year, Walker plans to implement 26 furlough days not only for those unionized departments, but across the board to obtain the equivalent savings and avoid a budget deficit.
“That would mean shutting down court operations for five weeks,” said Clerk of Circuit Court John W. Barrett.
As elected officials, judges would be exempt from the furloughs, but delays on the front end of cases would be extreme, said Judge Richard J. Sankovitz, the presiding judge in the Felony Division.
The furloughs would result in 50,000 lost hours of service, he said, and lead to delays in processing warrants along with longer waiting times for landlords in small claims court or victims of harassment to get injunctions.
In addition, Sankovitz said court delays would invariably increase the time people spend in jail awaiting their day in court.
“Our system ties inextricably to the jail population,” he said. “If we can’t process cases, they can’t move people out of jail and that will eat into any cost savings very quickly.”
Chief Judge Jeffrey A. Kremers echoed many of those sentiments at the annual State of the Courts luncheon on Oct. 13 and added that furloughs would reduce the courts efficiency in filing fee collection and delay judgment entry.
He said the court was able to avoid the 12 furlough days Walker imposed in 2010 through cost-saving measures throughout the year.
While the court was able to limit the disruptions this year, Barrett said many of the solutions were “one-time savings” which are now already included in the court’s budget, such as a reduction in reimbursement costs for repair and maintenance of court reporting equipment.
“At some point we’re going to have diminishing returns on what we’re able to do,” he said.
County Executive spokeswoman Fran McLaughlin said the furloughs are only a “fallback” plan should the union deals fall through.
If furloughs are implemented, she said that all county departments should have to do their part to balance the budget.
“It’s spreading the pain, if you will,” she said. “All employees should share in that.”
Court officials conceded that while the potential furloughs are a major concern, there are positive elements included in Walker’s budget, such as the shifting of the $10 million cross charge for bailiff services to the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department.
Given that the Sheriff’s Department is in charge of managing bailiffs, the court has long lobbied that costs associated with the approximately 100 positions should be removed from its budget.
Also included is $55,000 for expansion and relocation of the Milwaukee Justice Center, which provides free legal assistance to the public and is located within the county courthouse.
The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors will take final action on the county budget on Nov. 17, after an initial review and subsequent vetoes by Walker.
In his budget discussions with the County Board’s Finance Committee, which delayed a vote on the court’s budget pending further review of the proposed furloughs, Kremers said he would be willing to accept Walker’s budget, absent the furloughs.
“I told the committee, if you took out the furloughs, I could live with everything else,” he said.
Jack Zemlicka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.