The state Judicial Council will rule next week on a request by Orange County’s trial courts for $18.9 million in operating funds, which may force the county to allocate the money.
Local judges said the funds are needed to keep the courts operating through June. But county officials insist that the allocation can only be made by cutting elsewhere in their own lean budget.
“There is no way we can provide another $18 million. We simply don’t have the flexibility in the budget,” Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner said Tuesday. “If we are forced to provide this money, it will mean major adjustments, possible layoffs and service reductions.”
Steiner asked county officials Tuesday to explore the financial and legal options it has should the courts rule against it.
County Chief Financial Officer Gary Burton said the county has $3 million in reserves and $26 million in an account earmarked for early repayment of bankruptcy-related debts. Several supervisors said early repayment must be carried out to save the county millions of dollars in interest costs.
Officials point out that the county has already allocated about $130 million to the courts, roughly the same amount they received for all of the 1995-96 budget year.
“My hope is that some compromise can be reached,” Steiner said. “I don’t think anyone wins in a constitutional confrontation between the courts and the county.”
Theodore E. Millard, presiding judge for the Orange County Superior Court, also expressed hope that “reasonable minds will sit down at a table and seriously discuss this issue.” But he said the county must face up to its responsibilities and provide the courts with adequate funding.
Millard said the courts cannot be expected live within its 1995-96 budget because expenses have grown. The courts hired workers to fill some of its 80 vacant positions and were required under the county’s bankruptcy recovery plan to give retroactive pay raises to many employees.
Millard also said that other county law enforcement branches, such as the district attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Department, received budget increases last year. “It’s unrealistic to raise those budgets and think the courts can get by on the same amount,” he added.
If the Judicial Council rules in the courts’ favor, the judges will be free to legally demand payment from the county.
Also Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors scheduled an April study session to discuss child support collections.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer suggested the session, saying his offices and others have received numerous calls and visits from women with problems collecting child support payments.
“I want to have an opportunity to discuss these problems in a public setting,” Spitzer said. “We need to see whether there are things we can do to help the district attorney’s office collect child support.”
The district attorney’s office said last month that a reorganization of its child support division resulted in a 29% increase in collections.