Utah's courts this year are handling more felony crimes, more child custody fights and more lawsuits involving contract disputes, debt collection and forfeitures than last year.
But the financial outlook for the courts seems grim unless the system is permitted to hike filing fees to bring in more money.
Daniel Becker, who oversees the Administrative Office of the Courts, said legislators recently solved some short-term financial problems that prevented the courts from having to impose 26 days of unpaid furlough time for employees (except judges) and probably closing state district courthouses one day a week. The courts had been facing a budget cut of approximately $8 million to operate during the next six months until the fiscal year ends June 30, but the Legislature changed that to about $4 million, a cut Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has approved.
This now needs the stamp of approval from Huntsman, who is reviewing it, but a spokeswoman said it is likely Huntsman will sign off on it.
Dealing with a $4 million cut as opposed to one of $8 million is workable, according to Becker.
"We can adjust to the reductions," Becker said. "Our biggest concern is the ongoing reductions proposed for 2010."
The current legislative plan is to slice $17 million from the court budget (about a 15.3 percent reduction) beginning July 1. That may change when revenue projections due later this month come in, however, as legislators would be able to shore up some of the cuts to make them less dramatic.
Still, a 15 percent cut would mean eliminating 283 jobs, or approximately 30 percent of the workforce, Becker said. The courts currently employ about 1,100 people.
It would also mean closing some courthouses.
"We would not be able to support the number of courthouses we have in the state because we wouldn't have enough personnel to man them," Becker said.
Provisions would be made for getting such things as protective orders.
A budget reduction of this size also would mean longer delays for some types of cases and a somewhat grim system of setting priorities.
"We would give priority to criminal cases at the expense of civil and domestic cases," Becker said. "In juvenile court, child welfare would be prioritized over delinquency.
"The impact of that would be considerable delays in handling routine matters — they would go from weeks to months, as far as getting motions handled or default judgements handled. Trials or extended hearings could go from taking months to years (before a resolution is reached)."
Some examples of things that could take longer include divorces, contract disputes, debt collection and auto accident lawsuits.
It would also mean slower and longer lines at existing courthouses to get or file documents.
"We're going to have fewer people to staff the counters, so there will be greater delays," Becker said. An existing hiring freeze on 46 positions has already reduced the workforce, while at the same time, the amount of paperwork is growing due primarily to legal matters associated with an ailing economy.
There is hope for a better outcome, Becker says, if the courts are permitted to boost the filing fees for certain types of cases.
If adopted, the filing fee change could generate an estimated $12.5 million and, if the courts received that money, it would mean staff reductions of about 52 positions and financial cuts of $5.5 million.
"We could find a way through efficiencies and reorganizing work to get by with the level of 52 fewer persons," Becker said.
The fee increases would increase from the current $155 charge to $300 to file a civil lawsuit involving a controversy over $10,000 or more; the fee would go from $50 to $100 in cases of $2,000 or less; and cases involving sums between $2,000 and $10,000 would get a fee hike from $95 to $145.
It currently costs $85 to file for divorce. If these changes are adopted, it would cost $115.
Becker said provisions are in place for courts to waive fees for people who cannot afford them.
He said a survey of surrounding Western states showed Utah was "on the lower end" of court filing fees and even if the Legislature approves an increase, filing costs in Utah will likely be lower than most other states in this region.
"As we talk with legislators, they understand the impact on the courts," Becker said. "One reason is that we're almost all people — the budget is almost all personnel."
He said he understands all state agencies must become more frugal and the court system has always done its part in hard economic times, but he hopes any budget trimming slated for 2010 will not be at the level that is currently proposed.
Utah is not alone in this dilemma.
The Iowa Supreme Court recently ordered all of that state's court offices be closed on Feb. 16 and all non-judicial employees to be furloughed that day without pay. More furloughs are expected.
In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just got permission from a judge to order two unpaid days off per month for thousands of employees in various agencies in that state as a money-saving measure.
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