Sweeping cuts including reduced Kern County Superior Court service counter and telephone hours, the closure of the Kern River Branch Court in Lake Isabella and no longer providing court reporters for family law and unlimited civil matters will be implemented this year as a result of permanent budget reductions the court has been experiencing since 2008.
The court will have a deficit of $3.7 million in the upcoming 2013-14 budget year, according to county Court Administrator Terry McNally. The court has used savings from local cost-cutting measures in the past, but these savings will be depleted by the end of the year and permanent service reductions are now required to balance the court's budget.
Since 2008 the court has lost $9.7 million -- or 27 percent -- of its base funding. McNally said the 20 to 25 court jobs will be cut, half from court closures and the other half from court reporter positions and normal attrition.
McNally said it became apparent two weeks ago that major cuts would be necessary. They'd been examining figures since January and, while hoping to stave off cutbacks with reserves and controllable expenses, they realized they could no longer avoid the closures a lot of the courts in other California counties have already implemented.
"The Kern County Superior Court Judges believe court access is a fundamental component of fair and equitable justice and have approved these reductions reluctantly in the face of severe budget cuts over the past five years," county Presiding Judge Colette M. Humphrey said in a news release. "It is our hope that if future funding is restored to adequate levels, we can reinstate the services of the court for those people that turn to us for justice."
News of the cutbacks and closures was met with concern by people at the downtown courthouse Tuesday. Chanelle Brown said the courts are already busy as it with the services closing at 4 p.m.
"It seems like their solution is just to cut back an hour but they don't realize that they are going to be busier and people aren't going to be very happy about waiting even longer for court days," Brown said.
Roxanne Burgess said she thinks cutting back an hour is a big deal.
"The court is so overcrowded and slow that cutting back another hour is not going to be a good thing at all," she said.
Alicia Miller showed up at court Tuesday for housing issues and she said it's been a long process. She said cutting back another hour is going to inconvenience many people, some of whom have to work around school schedules to make it to the courthouse.
Defense attorney Fred Gagliardini said the courts are in a cycle he's not sure they can get out of, and the cuts are going to place a burden on the courts that have to pick up the slack. He said there aren't enough defense attorneys who can handle the more complex cases that are piling up, and even if there were there isn't court space available.
He said he's concerned about further cuts.
"I think the next thing they'll be looking into is furloughs," Gagliardini said.
McNally said it was decided to close the Kern River branch and limit the Taft branch to one day a week because they are the only remaining courthouses in the county with just one courtroom, and also because a sizable portion of the workload in those courthouses comes from outside the county. In making the cuts they tried to impact as few local residents as possible, he said.
Court reporters for family law matters and unlimited civil matters aren't mandatory, McNally said. Court reporters will still be provided in those matters dealing with contempts, domestic violence and abandonments.
Parties involved in cases where court reporters are discretionary may provide their own court reporters at their own expense, McNally said. A protocol for the use of contract court reporters is being developed and will be posted by June 1.
McNally said pay cuts for the remaining staff aren't being considered right now.
"We have cut our staff so much that the remaining individuals are running twice as fast to do the same job they did two years ago," he said.
The budget cuts have been felt throughout the state.
The Sacramento Bee reported earlier this year that there have been about $1.2 billion in total general fund cutbacks statewide since 2008, including $475 million from trial courts. The state Administrative Office of the Courts estimated in October that there were about 250 fewer judicial officers than needed in trial courts in California.
Also, the Judicial Council -- the policymaking body of the California courts -- voted in late February to delay 11 courthouse construction projects pending restoration of court construction funds in the budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.
McNally said he's not optimistic about the situation changing anytime soon, and more cuts are possible depending on how the situation evolves over the next few months. He said the state has been putting the money it receives into different segments of state government and has ignored the courts' argument that continued cuts will have major impacts on the community.
"It'll take more and more people calling their legislators before they realize the cuts they've made have had a significant impact on the quality of justice in California," he said.