Judicial district facing shortfalls

Court administrator: Budget cuts mean fewer hands to help the public

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— More than 9,000 new cases are filed with the 14th Judicial District every year. But as the workload swells, the manpower to handle it does not.

The district cannot afford to hire new employees. All judicial employees, with the exception of district judges, have been ordered to take eight unpaid days off before June 30, the end of fiscal year 2003.

That translates to 1,326 lost work hours, Court Administrator Evan Herman said.

"It's a tremendous amount of time," Herman said. "It is not an easy thing to absorb."

Courts across Colorado are feeling the impact of the state's $850 million deficit.

State lawmakers called for a $9 million cutback in Colorado's judiciary budget to make up for the shortfall.

About $98,000 of the reduction fell on the shoulders of the 14th Judicial District.

The district, which operates on an annual $1.8 million budget, cut three assistance programs to soften the blow. Axed services provided one-on-one legal advice to people who could not afford attorneys and facilitated out-of-court settlements.

"We had to eliminate everything that isn't essential," Herman said.

The equivalent of 30 full-time employees serve the residents of Routt, Moffat and Grand counties. Two part-time positions that were recently vacated have not been filled, but no one has been laid off.

Future budget cuts could spell the loss of jobs in the state's judicial branch. How many positions, if any, could go in the 14th Judicial District is uncertain.

"We're a very lean organization as it is," Herman said.

Slashed work hours and possible staffing cuts translate to fewer hands to serve the public.

Herman stressed public safety remains No. 1. Court clerks will give priority to restraining orders and warrants.

"The other things just take a second seat," Herman said. "When the day is over and certain things haven't been done ... or haven't happened yet, then there is nothing we can do.

"The other stuff just has to wait."

The state's Constitution doesn't allow unpaid leave for judges. Several Colorado judges, however, including retired 14th Judicial District Judge Richard Doucette, tried to ease some of the financial burden for their staff.

Before he retired, Doucette figured his annual salary over the period of clerks' unpaid leave and dispersed the money to judicial staff.

Chief District Judge Michael O'Hara also recognizes the challenges of doing more with less.

With the state's financial picture not looking any brighter, courts could very well face additional cuts in the 2004 fiscal year.

In the meantime, 14th Judicial District staff members recognize they are not alone and will continue to serve the public as best they can with the resources on hand, Herman said.

"The state is in a tough bind," he said. "These cuts are getting to the point where it's going to be crippling. At some point in time, the state and the citizens have to decide what is most important and what they want to continue."

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