A stunning example of classic bureaucracy in action is happening at the Mono County Superior Courthouse in Mammoth. The court had to ask for money from the state after the state took all the court’s money away to balance the state budget. Mono Courts were asking for the $49, 000; $33,000 it had already contributed to a communal state court coffer plus an additional $16,000. The coffer is stuffed with nearly $38 million, but Mono almost didn’t get what it needed, because courts deal with precedent and if Mono got the money, every court with a splinter would come running for tweezers.
Mono was the first court to ask for money from the pot of cash. The courthouse in Mammoth has already been cut to the bone financially; there is not enough manpower to answer the phones, so all communication with the court is through email, snail mail or in person, but only for half the day.
The Mono County Superior Court had to ask the California Judicial Council to forgive a loan; money paid out to a retiring employee. It paid out a lump sum of $49,000 in back vacation and sick-leave pay to a retiring employee in March 2015. Mono’s Court Executive Officer Hector Gonzales said the retiree had dedicated so much of her time that she never took a break.
Mono Court knew the expense was coming and was saving up for it for years. Former-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s kept the courts protected from substantial cuts, Gonzales explained. Then came Governor Jerry Brown and California’s budget freefall. Brown emptied individual court coffers in 2012 to balance the state budget. Brown’s fix to the state’s money problem was to have every agency take a bite of the sandwich, courts included. The state took away the courts’ reserves and limited future holdings to a maximum of 1 percent of a courts’ total budget.
Mono Superior Court has a $1.2 million budget, so it can’t keep more than $12,000 in reserves. An individual court’s reserve money goes to pay for things like computer software. Anything leftover goes into the Judicial Court’s communal account, the $38 million coffer.
Now courts have to beg for money via a Special Supplemental Budget Request to the California Judicial Council. The council of 21 is made up of important and highly paid people who probably have better things to do than haggle over $16,000. The council includes the state’s Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the Honorable Daniel Buckley of Los Angeles, and Inyo County’s presiding Superior Court Judge, Dean Stout. Stout is able to offer the council some insight into the plight and unique struggles of rural court systems, Gonzales said, and is a great asset for both counties.
When asked for money at the Oct. 27 meeting, Buckley was hesitant to give Mono more than $33,000, the amount Mono had put into the reserve over the past three years.
Gonzales said Buckley was “like a pit bull with its toy” not wanting to let the issue go. Buckley said that it would set a bad precedent by giving Mono the money, opening the flood gates for other courts to coming crying with hands out. Gonzales said the small amount of money would help keep the Mono court from closing for two days and granting furloughs to employees. Last year the court was closed for 17 days it would normally be open and employees were furloughed 21 days due to budget cuts.
In the end, the council agreed to Mono’s request. Mono Superior Court is still looking at $2,000 deficit, but that should be taken care of with minor cuts, not closing the office, Gonzales explained.
Gonzales said he has seen some good smoke signals from Sacramento. It is anticipated there will be more money for courts in Brown’s January Governor’s budget proposal. The extra cash would allow Mono to hire another court clerk and possibly keep the customer service window open full-time. Currently the court is short three-plus people, so the window is only open half-days and there is no longer enough manpower to answer the phones, according to Gonzales. He said he sees people coming to the door, reading the closed sign, and walking away empty-handed.