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Milwaukee County plays waiting game

In this Oct. 13, 2010 file photo, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Jeffrey A. Kremers speaks at the annual State of the Courts luncheon. The court system is facing as many as 26 furlough days for staff. WLJ photo by Kevin Harnack

In this Oct. 13, 2010 file photo, Milwaukee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Jeffrey A. Kremers speaks at the annual State of the Courts luncheon. The court system is facing as many as 26 furlough days for staff. WLJ photo by Kevin Harnack

While members of the Association of Milwaukee County Attorneys and other nonunion court employees will avoid furloughs next year, the same cannot yet be said for court clerks and other clerical staff.

The possibility still exists that those employees could face up to 26 unpaid furlough days if a contract agreement isn’t reached by Jan. 1 with union members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 48.

The county budget, adopted on Nov. 17, included yet-to-be-agreed-upon wage and benefit concessions for some union court employees, totaling about $960,000. The union and the county may also be able to work out a compromise that results in fewer furlough days.

Milwaukee County Clerk of Court John Barrett said that prospect poses significant problems for court efficiency, especially since judges need court clerks present to conduct hearings.

“I can be sitting here but can’t conduct cases without a clerk or court reporter,” said Milwaukee County Circuit Court Judge William S. Pocan. “It’s an absurd result.”

Pocan also noted that the uncertainty poses scheduling problems, as some civil cases are calendared a year out to help ease the burden on the system. He said judges get about 150 new cases each month and furloughs could mean that some of those would need to be pushed even further out.

In its adoption of the 2011 budget, the Board of Supervisors voted 13-6 to implement an increase in health insurance costs for county employees, but also approved incremental two percent pay increases next year to counter a four percent draw on employee’s salaries that will go toward the county pension fund.

Union workers, including members of District Council 48 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, account for 85 percent of the county workforce.

District Council 48 executive director Rich Ableman said at this point, negotiations are at a “standstill” because members objected to the fact that the concessions were included in the budget and not brought to the union first.

Another wrinkle in the negotiation process is the transition in the county executive position. Gov.-elect Scott Walker is expected to step down in December and Barrett said he has no idea how things will play out.

“We have part of our operation that would not be subject to furloughs and another part that might be,” he said. “I don’t know how the new county executive, whoever that may be, will decide to implement them.”

But the budget wasn’t all bad for the courts. It included a transfer 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 in the budget was $250,000 to implement a universal screening program for jail inmates. The program is designed to quickly screen inmates for drug abuse or mental illness and determine who might benefit from a diversion program, rather than incarceration.

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

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