Court budget cuts mark ‘dark day’ for county

Published 5:19 pm Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb announced Tuesday that budget cuts for the court system will result in the layoff of at least 254 court employees plus an additional 25 Administrative Office of Courts employees by Oct. 1.

The $138.9 million appropriation in the budget adopted by the House of Representatives marks a $13.1 million decrease in funding of the court system over the current fiscal year. Cobb said in a press conference Tuesday that the $13.1 reduction in the appropriation would mean that staffs of each circuit clerk’s office will be reduced by 35 percent effective Oct. 1.

“Alabama faces a crisis as our current revenues do not meet the state’s obligations and needs, and I do not envy the Legislature in having to attempt to craft a balanced General Fund budget in these circumstances,” Cobb said. “However, the funding for the courts in the proposed budget is neither adequate nor reasonable for the courts to be open to provide a remedy by due process of law to every person for any injury as required by our state’s constitution.”

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The impact of the cuts will be felt in Butler County and the surrounding areas.

“It’s a dark day in Butler County,” Clerk of Circuit Court Allen Stephenson said.

The cuts mean that the Butler County Circuit Clerk’s office, which has been operating with six full-time employees and two temporary employees, will be forced to reduce its staff to four full-time employees.

“Our manpower studies that we had done two years ago showed that our office should be staffed with nine full-time employees, and we’ve been operating with six. Now we’re going to be forced to make even more cuts,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson and his office, which disposed of 16,899 cases in Butler County last year, have experienced cuts in the past.

“Like the business world, we’ve been dealing with this for a while,” Stephenson said. “In 2003 we laid off two full-time employees that we never recovered, and at the end of last year we laid off two temporary employees who were really crucial to our operation, but just didn’t receive any benefits. We also cut one of the juvenile probation officers for the county last year. So, we’ve been feeling the pinch and doing what we can to continue to serve the people of Butler County.”

Circuit Judge Terri Bozeman Lovell said she hopes the impact the cuts will have on the court system will not be “visible” to the public.

“We’re going to do everything we can to process cases in an efficient manner, and hopefully the impact won’t be too noticeable to the public, but there’s no question there will be an impact,” she said. “There’s just no way to avoid it when you reduce the number of employees in an office.”

Lovell said her plan is to continue with the court calendar that has already been set for this year, but that cases will likely begin to be prioritized.

“There are cases that are going to have to take precedence over others,” she said. “If we get a protection from abuse case in, we’ll have to handle that one before we do a small claims case,” she said. “With fewer employees there are going to be times where we have to prioritize and things might not happen as quickly as we would like, but we’re going to do our best and we’d ask the public to be patient with us.”

Stephenson said his “greatest fear” is that a lack of staffing could cause an unacceptable delay in the court’s operations.

“We’re a branch of the government and we’re required to do certain things in a certain amount of time or we deny justice to someone,” he said. “My greatest fear is that would happen because of a lack of staffing. We certainly have no intention of allowing that to happen if we can avoid it. We’re going to do the best job that we can. We care for the people that we serve and we’re going to do everything we can to do the very best job we can do for them.”

Cobb had been hoping for a $10 million supplemental appropriation from the Legislature to help the courts get through the remainder of the current year, but she said that money is now needed to aid in the state’s recovery efforts following last month’s deadly tornado outbreak that killed more than 200 people across north and central Alabama.

According to Cobb, the extra $10 million would have saved 177 court system jobs.

Cobb also believes a bill to raise the state’s cigarette tax by $1 a carton is dead for this session. Some proceeds from the cigarette tax were to go to the courts.