Tuesday, March 30, 2010
Employees face furloughs, judges do own filing
By Jeff Proctor And Scott Sandlin
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writers
Expect further reduced hours and cuts to programs such as drug court as Metro Court in Albuquerque faces likely furloughs in the face of a projected million-dollar budget shortfall, Chief Judge Judith Nakamura said.
At the state District Court, where judges are already helping with paper filing, there will be more delays in customer service and it will take longer to get cases resolved.
If you are a lawyer and your client is hoping for a civil jury trial, be prepared to wait. Chief Judge Ted Baca, for example, said his jury calendar is full for the rest of the year, and he is now scheduling trials for 2011.
The latest cuts are on top of earlier reductions.
Those include furloughs and holding vacancies open at District Court, and everything from turning down the heat and reducing janitorial services to banning restroom paper towels in favor of hand-blowers at Metro Court.
Now, Metro Court employees are looking at furloughs for the first time, while 2nd Judicial District Court employees are likely to go from the equivalent of about half a week a year to a total of about eight days unless more money is found somewhere.
"Ninety-five percent of our budget is people — salary and benefits," state District Court executive officer Juanita Duran said. "There's only one answer: furloughs."
The nearly half-million-dollar shortfall at District Court is based on keeping in place cost-saving measures already taken, including leaving vacant 23 authorized positions.
Officials at Metro Court, the state's busiest, are scrambling to get grant money and other funds to try to "plug some of the holes" before the next fiscal year begins July 1, Nakamura told the Journal.
Nakamura said she prefers to begin furloughs at Metro Court immediately July 1 and space them out throughout the fiscal year. She said the court is still figuring out logistics but hopes they would be "no more than a few hours per pay period."
Metro Court's budget already had been cut more than $1.2 million this fiscal year. Another $650,000 was trimmed during the legislative special session, and Gov. Bill Richardson vetoed a $1.5 million liquor excise tax, which court officials had hoped to tap.
Last week, Nakamura sent the e-mail she had feared sending for nearly two years. Addressed to 300 employees, it warned that furloughs are likely to begin July 1.
"While furloughs are tragic, the bigger issue is that we will have to close the court and reduce specialty courts," she said. "Our specialty courts reduce the jail population. We are cognizant of that, and we are trying not to affect other areas of the criminal justice system.
"We also have to look at how all of this will affect case processing. The cases keep coming in; we're up 4,000 from three years ago."
When the state's budget began to shrink in mid-2008, Metro Court officials start making cuts. Those have included: cutting back to two days a week for most janitorial services; asking court employees to look through their desks for pens and other supplies to avoid ordering more and turning down the heat and air conditioning in the winter and summer, respectively.
"I had a jury in here about three weeks ago, and it got into the evening, around 6:30," Nakamura said. "They said, 'Man, it's cold in here.' And I told them, 'I'm sorry, but we turn the heat off at 5 o'clock.' "
Penny-saving strategies simply aren't enough anymore, Court Administrator Brian Gilmore said. "The problem is so big now that getting rid of paper towels won't fix it this time."
For several years, Metro Court was open 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9:30 a.m. until felony first appearances and misdemeanor arraignments were over — usually around 1 p.m. — on weekends.
The court recently moved its weekday opening time to 7:30 a.m., Nakamura said, adding that further reductions in hours seem likely.
"We're currently analyzing when the lowest traffic times would be," she said. "I believe it will be Friday afternoons, and I know we won't want to look at cutting hours on Monday mornings when the court is its busiest."
The idea, she said, is to affect case flow and customer service as little as possible.
At the 2nd Judicial District Court, $1.5 million worth of belt-tightening steps already taken have included: shaving clerks' office hours so the diminished staff could devote more time to filing and other chores before the windows open to the public.
What the public will see, besides ever-longer lines, is more time to get cases resolved, because the caseload has jumped 21 percent overall during the past few years. The biggest increases, predictably, were in debt-related cases and family matters.
Metro Court already has had telephone waits up to an hour and long lines in the customer service area, Gilmore said. In fact, staff members have been moved from answering phones to helping walk-in customers — and vice versa — on various days.
That's because the court already is short-staffed, Nakamura said. Eighteen positions are unfilled, down from a high of 31 a few months ago. The judge said the higher number was simply not manageable.
The staffing shortage makes the idea of furloughs even tougher, she said, but it beats eliminating the specialty courts — drug and homeless courts, for example.
Nakamura has assigned an employee the sole task of finding more money to avoid cuts and furloughs. Part of the problem, she said, is that state and federal grant money can't be used to pay salaries and benefits, which are 78 percent of the court's $22 million budget.
The grants can, however, be used for the specialty courts, Nakamura said. And that would free up additional money for employees.