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Courts lose staff due to budget issues

The ramifications of a proposed 10 percent budget cut plus increases to employee benefit contributions are starting to show at the state’s circuit courts.

More employees are opting to retire, said Milwaukee Clerk of Courts John Barrett, rather than pay increased benefit contributions of 12.6 percent to health care costs and 5.8 percent to pensions as laid out in legislation signed by Gov. Scott Walker on March 11.

“Due to the draconian nature of some of these proposals, we’re looking at a mass exodus of individuals from our office,” he said. “That will put a tremendous burden on our office.”

Barrett said 21 of his staff members will retire at the end of the month, in part because of the increased benefit contributions and also because a county Medicaid benefit for employees expires March 31, which saved employees $99 a month.

The impending departure of support staff, including deputy court clerks, could mean unavoidable delays in processing warrants, judgments of conviction and calendaring cases in small claims court, he said.

Wisconsin Director of State Courts John Voelker said he is not expecting massive turnover, but acknowledged judges in the state are likely evaluating the impact the new legislation will have on them.

“Rather than risk losing certain types of benefits, they might retire,” he said. “Something like that has the potential to give you a balloon of folks leaving.”

Approximately two-thirds of the judges in the state will meet the retirement qualifications within the next five years, Voelker said. That number will increase to 84 percent in the next decade.

Elected officials are generally eligible to retire at 62.

Hon. Jeff Kremers

Hon. Jeff Kremers

Milwaukee County Circuit Court Chief Judge Jeff Kremers said it would be difficult to compensate for any substantial loss in experience on the bench at one time.

While he has no plans to retire, Kremers said the new legislation could prompt judges to make retirement plans sooner than later.

“On a personal level, many are asking ‘What is this doing to me as far as retirement benefits and income?’” he said. “So those on the cusp of being in the retirement pool perhaps are speeding up their decision.”

Circuit court judges earn $129,000 annually and the new health care and pension contributions will equate to an 8 percent pay cut.

All judges, including existing ones, will be subject to the pension and health care changes upon the swearing in of the first judge after the effective date of the bill.

Secretary of State Doug La Follette said March 14 he will delay publication of the law until the last day possible, March 25.

The Wisconsin Department of Employee Trust Funds reported as of Feb. 25, the number of retirement estimate requests statewide have increased 69 percent over the first two months in 2010, from 3,462 in 2010 to 5,866 this year.

Faced with a proposed 10 percent cut in state appropriations, circuit courts also are weighing the possibility of having to cut some employees in addition to those opting to retire.

“It’s going to be a big hit to the county,” said Dane County Circuit Court Chief Judge Bill Foust said of the loss of state money. “We’re close enough to the bone now, so this probably means cutting bodies.”

Dane County Clerk of Court Carlo Esqueda said the county would lose out on approximately $180,000 in state money generated through the court support services surcharge and guardian as litem revenue.
In Milwaukee, Barrett said cuts to state money would result in a hiring freeze as well as a decline in court efficiency.

By keeping positions vacant, he said, courts would see processing delays within the clerk’s office which translates to delays on court calendars.

Milwaukee County will lose approximately $435,000 from the state under the proposal.

“The governor’s budget is a public safety nightmare,” Barrett said. “I’m concerned about the delays in court proceedings that might occur as a result of this. This leaves court staff behind and could result in more errors.”

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

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