County Study Finds That Turning Courts Over to State Could Be Costly

Times Staff Writers

Turning the costs of running Orange County's courts over to the state could gain the county $8.7 million to $16.3 million within a year but wind up costing it money within a decade, according to a new county study.

The county estimates it now pays about $65 million a year to run the court system, including the salaries of district attorneys, public defenders, bailiffs, court clerks and judges. It recoups most of that from fines it collects from offenders and fees it levies on people using the court system.

A new law passed in Sacramento shortly before the Legislature adjourned this year allows the county to turn many of the costs of the courts over to the state--but the county would also give up much of the revenue it collects through the courts.

Under a last-minute amendment to the measure, a county must give up part of its property-tax revenue to cities with low or no property taxes if it turns court costs and revenue over to the state.

"(The provision) has absolutely nothing to do with trial court funding," County Administrative Officer Larry Parrish said in a report distributed to the Board of Supervisors.

"Literally thrown together in the waning hours of this year's legislative session, the bill is fraught with ambiguities," Parrish said.

Because of the uncertainties, Parrish said, the county auditor-controller drew up two estimates of what would happen if the county turned court costs and revenue over to the state. The estimates are based on speculation about which fees and fines the state would ultimately collect and which it might allow the county to keep.

Under one scenario, the county would net $16.3 million in the first year and $21.2 million in the fourth year. But by year 13, "the county would go $848,189 in the hole, with ever-increasing amounts thereafter" because of the loss of property tax revenue to cities, Parrish said.

The second scenario puts the county at $8.7 million in the black in year one and $12.5 million by year four. But in the ninth year, the county would be $994,000 in the hole and looking at bigger deficits after that.

Parrish said that Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has promised to help clean up some of the ambiguities in the new law when the Legislature reconvenes in January and that the county will not decide what to do until then.

For years, county supervisors have complained about paying large amounts of money for the Superior Court system, which is run by the state.

Although each of the county's 54 Superior Court judges is paid $81,505 a year, with the state paying all but $9,500 of that, adding in the cost of court services, bailiffs, court reporters, clerks and other personnel leads the county to estimate that it costs the county $500,000 a year for one Superior Court judge to operate.

Municipal judges are paid $74,386 a year. The county runs the Municipal Court system and pays the judges, although the new bill would allow the county to turn the cost of their salaries over to the state as well.

Orange County is not alone in its concern over the new law, said Michael Corbett, a lobbyist for the County Supervisors Assn. of California. He said most counties, particularly the larger ones, have indicated that they want several parts of the bill clarified before they agree to participate.

"The mood may well be one of, if not disappointment, a sort of dismay that what the counties originally perceived to be a solution to the trial-court funding problem may in fact have created a number of unforeseen problems," Corbett said.

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