Money may force county SLO County court delays

Budget cuts at the county’s courts could gum up the local justice system and slow down trials and civil lawsuits.San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Executive Officer Susan Matherly said the court has avoided layoffs and will help fill a $1 million revenue budget gap by putting its 145 employees on furloughs once a month on Fridays beginning Oct. 7.

The furlough program is among several cost-cutting measures court officials are implementing to cover the gap, which was caused by a state budget shortfall.

The court’s operating budget is estimated to be about $19 million this year.

The reduction plan also is expected to include the temporary closure of the Grover Beach court branch to save on maintenance costs. A final decision on the South County court’s closure is expected Wednesday.

The closure likely would shut down the branch for business operations for at least the next year.

Longer customer service lines on Fridays and more delays in family and civil law hearings are expected with the furlough program.

Presiding Judge Charles S. Crandall, who makes the final call on budget decisions, said in August that several options were being considered to address the shortfall, including layoffs. Officials will be able to keep courtroom doors open during regular business hours because the furloughs will be staggered.

About a quarter of the staff will be off every Friday, which will mean phones might go unanswered and longer customer service lines that day, Matherly said. An employee-union group selected Fridays because it’s a day that typically sees slow courtroom traffic.

The furlough plan, which will be re-evaluated at the end of this calendar year, will save about $293,000. The plan will mean about a 5 percent pay cut for each employee.

The additional reductions include keeping 13 unfilled positions vacant, spending about $100,000 less this year on janitorial services, and terminating $50,000 in funding for a court program helping abused and neglected children.

“We looked at every cost-cutting measure we could,” Matherly said. “Our employees even will be taking out their own trash because of the re-negotiation of our janitorial contract.”

Matherly said fewer jury summons notices will be sent out as well, reducing printing and mailings by an estimated $8,000 this year.

But that means a higher percentage of county residents summoned will serve on a jury than in past years, and reasons for excusals for hardship will be closely scrutinized.

In criminal court, which has statutory guidelines to hold hearings within a certain time unless that time period is waived, judges will be less lenient about time waivers, Matherly said.

“The reasons attorneys and defendants give for the delays will be considered more carefully because every time a hearing is continued, that’s more clerical work for a staff member,” she said.

Matherly said the court also expects to receive money from the state for a pilot program to test a new computer program, and it can use some of that money to employ staff members.