Budget includes detailed cuts to courts

MONTESANO — The Grays Harbor County commissioners took one last shot across the bow at the Grays Harbor Superior Court judges and their lawsuit on Monday before they approved a $24.3 million operating budget.

The budget calls for departments using the general fund to reduce their budgets by 3.5 percent. But, instead of directing specific cuts, the budget includes a “contra entry,” which gives elected officials and department heads a full year to figure out where they can find the savings. The one exception to that is the Superior Court and Juvenile Detention Center budgets.

On Monday, County Commissioner Terry Willis directed line-item cuts to the judges’ budgets and a five-page supplemental letter explaining those cuts. The move was approved by the other commissioners in the final approval of the budget.

The cuts include laying off a part-time secretary position at the Juvenile Detention Center, orders the judges not to fill a vacant probation counselor and doesn’t fund two detention officers or a requested promotion, resulting in $185,566 in cuts to the office.

The letter notes that the detention center works with 3.6 secretary positions, while Public Health works with none and the Road Division works with two, and both of those offices operate just fine.

“The workload for these positions is such that the .6 secretarial position should be eliminated,” the letter states.

The budget also decreases the judge’s “extra help” by $9,143 in the Superior Court budget. But, in a twist, the budget does give a raise to one of the judges’ long-time employees for extra duties she was performing. The commissioners note the need for extra help can be addressed next year, if needed.

The budgets also include some medical rate savings, as experienced by lower-than-budgeted medical premium costs that all of the county budgets share.

“The information justifying the request for appropriations is not fully adequate because of the lack of cooperation by the Superior Court and in some instances because of the inadequate budgetary records kept by the court, particularly in the Juvenile Division,” the letter states.

Willis, who was the chief budget writer, lost her re-election bid. Fellow Commissioner Mike Wilson also lost his re-election bid, leaving incumbent Commissioner Herb Welch on the board next year with two new members next January — Frank Gordon and Wes Cormier.

Last week, a Thurston County judge agreed to stay the judges’ lawsuit to allow them to work out a settlement with the new board.

Willis said the letter was added to the budget to provide a record of the commissioners’v dealings with the judges this past week as part of their budget process and to help the next Board of County Commissioners.

The letter notes that the cuts should have negligible impact on either of the budgets.

“The Superior Court made no efforts to reduce expenditures during 2012 in the Superior Court as other departments or the District Court did,” the letter states. “Some positions in Juvenile remained vacant, although the Court believes it can just unilaterally fill them although the county has in place a hiring freeze because of its financial condition. Juvenile has continued to function.”

There was a dispute last month between the judges and the commissioners as to whether the judges have the right to hire employees without having the process be approved by the commissioners. Judge Dave Edwards approved the hiring of two new corrections officers, but Willis said that decision should have gone through the commissioners.

“The Court has claimed in its oral presentation at hearing that if the county would fill two detention officer positions, then savings could be achieved from part-time help,” the letter states. “The board has heard that claim before when it funded additional positions, only to discover no savings were achieved, only increased expenditures. The board finds the court has not provided sufficient information to demonstrate any cost savings from this approach or the amount of such cost savings. Without this information, the board finds the request to hire two more detention officers has not been justified.”

The commissioners also accuse the Juvenile Detention Center of “inadequate accounting and accountability” and urged the next Board of County Commissioners to look into the issue, noting that the detention center had said certain state grants would be anticipated and the county spent dollars thinking grants would come in, but the funds never materialized.

The letter also says that a third courtroom — a request made by the judges for years and repeated in their lawsuit — could go in the current law library at the historic courthouse in Montesano, “however, the Superior Court has not demonstrated why it should have exclusive use of such a courtroom.”

And the letter takes aim at courthouse security, noting that the judges’ demands for security — another lawsuit issue — that posts a deputy in each court room has cost the county too much.

“There is a cost to the current approach,” the letter states. “Any savings from using the procedures used by every other county would benefit the county and free up funds for other purposes, including potentially other judicial needs.”