The way Fresno County Superior Court Judge Gary Hoff explains it, these are not happy financial times for the state’s superior court system.
In the past five years, the amount of the judicial budget covered by the state’s general fund has fallen from 56% to 20%. Last year alone, general fund support for the judicial branch of government dropped by $544 million.
Ideally, the Fresno County court system should have 584 employees to adequately meet its staffing needs, Hoff told a Bench Bar Media luncheon group today at the Downtown Club. At one point, that number reached 550. It is now at 420 and is expected to continue on the downward trend.
The state is requiring reserves to be spent by mid-2014 — at least that is the plan for now — with a reserve no greater than 1% kept on hand after that.
“One slight mistake, we aren’t making payroll,” said Hoff, the current presiding judge of the Fresno County Superior Court.
So what to do?
Those in the judicial system often say they are an easy budget cut because they have no constituency. A few judges, prosecutors and others complaining to legislators don’t carry the weight of broader constituencies who might be affected by budget cuts in other areas.
But today, Hoff — as well as U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii, speaking on the federal side — told attorneys they should urge their clients and other people affected by any proposed budget cuts to speak up.
These aren’t the judges or prosecutors, but real people who are paying higher fees to use the court system, or who are facing delays in their hearings.
With the drop in general fund support for the judicial budget, Hoff said, the expectation is the difference will be made up by user fees.
That means higher traffic fines, penalty assessments on convictions and filing fees in areas such as custody or divorce cases. These often hit hard-working taxpayers, Hoff said.
In 2007, Hoff said, court filing fee costs ranged from $180 to $320. Now it is $225 to $435.
Said Hoff: “It’s not a good business model.”
The challenge is convincing state legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown. And those were the marching orders Hoff gave to the luncheon guests.