December 2014 Bar Bulletin
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From the Desk of the Presiding Judge

Deep Cuts Threaten Court Services

By Judge Susan Craighead

 

I'll never forget the day earlier this year when the King County Budget Office told Superior Court that we needed to find an additional $1 million in cuts. In a week. On top of the 2-percent cut we had already offered. We sensed their desperation.

This year it seemed as though the county's budget situation kept getting worse. An Eyman initiative limits property tax revenue increases to 1 percent plus new construction per year, creating a structural deficit that will not improve unless the Legislature repeals it. No matter how much your assessed value rises, the cap on revenue increases is 1 percent. Added to this deficit were state budget cuts (especially to public health) and an unexpected increase in the county's contribution to the retirement system.

We sharpened our pencils and tried to help. It's always better to come up with our own cuts than to let the other two branches try their hands at it. And we were mindful that both the county executive and the County Council have been very supportive of our need to build our own replacement for SCOMIS, the 35-year-old data system. Difficult as it was, we felt an obligation to try "to find efficiencies" - at this point, a euphemism for layoffs.

In actuality, our cut of $3,268,849 over the 2015-16 biennium is less painful than it might appear because vacant positions account for most of it. These positions had been held open for years to allow us to meet what was known as a mandatory "under expenditure contra." In English, that means that no matter what amount the Court was allocated by the County Council, we were required to spend 1.5 percent less.

Needless to say, this practice was neither transparent nor sound public policy. Why did we have eight court reporter positions in our budget that would likely never be filled because they had been supplanted by technology? County Executive Dow Constantine wisely adopted a policy that encouraged us to give up these vacant positions this year, shielding us from the full effect of the cut, while at the same time enabling the public to see what they are getting for their tax dollars.

We are nonetheless laying off six staff members during the first six months of 2015. We are still in the midst of identifying which positions they will be. There is no such thing as an "easy" layoff. To some degree, our level of service will be affected. I hesitate to speculate here about which positions will be eliminated, but I know that all of the people involved are valued members of our court family.


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