Politics & Government

Kentucky courthouses will close for three furlough days in 2012 to cut costs

Chief Supreme Court Justice John D. Minton.
Chief Supreme Court Justice John D. Minton. Photo provided

FRANKFORT — Kentucky court workers will be furloughed three days this year, closing courthouses statewide on Aug. 6, Sept. 4 and Oct. 15, Chief Justice John D. Minton said Wednesday.

The cost-cutting move is the result of cuts the Kentucky General Assembly made to the court system's budget, Minton said.

This is the first time since Kentucky's modern court system was formed in 1976 that the judicial branch must close courthouse doors to balance its budget, he added.

Court spokeswoman Leigh Anne Hiatt said the furloughs would affect all judicial branch employees except elected officials. The state court system has about 3,300 employees and 404 elected justices, judges and circuit court clerks, she said.

Minton said during a news conference in his Capitol office that the state Constitution prohibits elected officials from being furloughed but that some elected officials want to return three days of their pay to the state. He said he would do that.

Furloughs are one of several measures included in the judicial branch's budget-reduction plan for fiscal year 2013, which begins July 1.

In an email to all state court personnel, Minton noted that the legislature did not fund a pay equity plan that would make judicial branch salaries competitive with the other two branches of government and a capital project to replace the court system's obsolete case management system, which he said is at risk of failure.

The legislature reduced the total funds available to the judicial branch by $25.2 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

Since the economic crisis began in 2008, the judicial branch has cut 282 employees statewide, eliminated court programs and trimmed operating costs at all four levels of the court system, he said.

"Until now, we were able to take aggressive measures to avoid furloughs and keep courts open," Minton said. "But there are only so many places to cut in a court operations budget that is 86 percent personnel."

Minton said he did not think the legislature treated the judicial budget any differently than it did the budgets for the executive and legislative branches.

Along with furloughs in the first half of the upcoming fiscal year, Minton said, the judicial branch would:

■ Implement hiring restrictions and require a new process to fill vacancies.

■ Convert 100-hour part-time employees with benefits, numbering 122, to 80-hour part-time employees without benefits on June 30, 2013.

■ Reduce and cap the number of drug court participants.

■ Reduce operating expenditures by $1.6 million.

■ Eliminate the Kentucky High School Mock Trial Tournament program.

■ Charge Kentucky schools $10 for criminal record reports they now receive for free.

■ Increase the cost of criminal record reports for all other citizens from $15 to $20.

Minton expressed concern that the furloughs would hurt workers who live paycheck to paycheck and veteran employees' pensions, which are based on annual salaries.

The chief justice also expressed concern that the number of participants in Kentucky Drug Court would be capped at 2,200 and drug testing would be limited to twice a week instead of three times a week.

He said current participants in drug court would not be removed from the program because of budgetary matters, and he said the cap would be achieved through attrition and a moratorium on new entries. The average number of participants in the program now is 2,542.

Minton said the courts would react to people who need court services on furlough days as they do on Saturdays and Sundays, by focusing on emergencies.

Non-judicial offices in courthouses such as sheriff departments and county clerks' offices will be open on the days judicial workers are furloughed.

The Supreme Court and leadership of the Administrative Office of the Courts will meet in January to determine whether additional furloughs and reductions are necessary for the remainder of fiscal year 2013, which starts July 1 and ends June 30, 2013, Minton said.

Meanwhile, the executive branch budget appears to be improving.

State budget director Mary Lassiter informed Gov. Steve Beshear on Friday that the unofficial outlook for the state General Fund in the executive branch budget indicates it might finish this fiscal year with $58.4 million more than expected.

"Underlying economic conditions have improved for the near-term forecast," Lassiter said in her letter, contained in the Quarterly Economic and Revenue Report for January through March of this fiscal year.