Under the cloud of their ongoing lawsuit against county government, the Grays Harbor Superior Court judges made their case for their 2013 budget requests during a special budget hearing Thursday afternoon.
The judges took the county commissioners, who set the budget, to court challenging cuts the commissioners made one year ago to the current budget. As of last month, under threats of court closures, the commissioners restored that funding. The lawsuit, however, is still ongoing.
The county had set aside up to an hour to go over the Superior Court budget and the Juvenile Detention Center, which falls under the judges’ purview. The judges said they were prepared to spend the whole time there, but they were out in less than 20 minutes. Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards said he was surprised at the lack of questions.
Under the new budget process put in place by Commission Chairwoman Terry Willis, except for a few exceptions, only one commissioner is meeting with each of the departments during three special meetings this month.
Commissioner Mike Wilson was the chosen delegate to meet with the judges.
In the large meeting room typically used for regular commission meetings, Wilson sat and politely motioned for the judges to make their case.
“Gentlemen, anytime you’re ready,” Wilson told the judges. “As far as I’m concerned, I’m here just to listen.”
Superior Court Judges Mark McCauley, Edwards and Gordon Godfrey sat at a small table brought in front of the commission rostrum. The y had to look up at Wilson as they spoke.
No microphones were on. No meeting minutes were taken. Except for The Daily World, no one recorded the meeting. No one except for the county auditor and budget staff attended the meeting. Judge Godfrey didn’t speak during the meeting, looking carefully at Wilson the entire time.
McCauley took the point for the judges.
“There’s a perception over the years that we haven’t been willing to give, that we’ve been demanding and we want 100 percent of what we want, no matter what,” McCauley told Wilson. “So what I did is I went back and did an analysis using your budget numbers and I compared them starting in 1994.”
McCauley looked at the Prosecutor’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the Superior Court.
“The reason we chose the prosecutor and sheriff is because they drive our office to a degree,” McCauley said. “We’re at the end of the line. They arrest them, they prosecute them and we’ve got to try them.”
For fun, McCauley said, they also looked at the commission budget.
McCauley’s analysis showed the prosecutor’s budget has grown 106 percent since 1994. The sheriff’s budget has grown 73 percent since 1994. The commissioners’ budget has grown 58 percent. Meantime, the Consumer Price Index has gone up 55 percent, McCauley said.
He pointed out that the Juvenile Detention Center’s budget has grown by 45 percent and the Superior Court has grown by 40 percent — the lowest out of the county offices examined.
“So for those 18 years, the approved budgets for Juvenile and Superior Court wasn’t even close to the Consumer Price Index,” McCauley said. “And I think all of us can tell you we do far more than we did 18 years ago. Our case loads have gone up. So we have, in real dollars, been receiving substantially less and been giving you substantially more. This is just a new way to convey what we’ve been saying.”
The Superior Court is asking for $717,661 for next calendar year, which is $31,334 more than what’s being spent this year, and $85,000 more than what the commissioners wanted the judges to spend.
McCauley pointed out that if the courts had been on track with the same spending level as the Prosecutor’s Office since 1994, their budget really should be in excess of $1 million. His point, he said, is that the judges have been managing their money well over the years and saving the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“I constantly read about how the court wants a blank check and all the money they want to use but, in fact, we have held the line and we have the same staff we had in 1994,” McCauley said, citing two court staff members and two court reporters.
The only major staffing request they have is the promotion of their executive secretary to an assistant court administrator, which would come with a small raise, Edwards pointed out. They are asking for no more staff.
After nine minutes, Wilson said he had no questions and motioned for the judges to then present their budget for the Juvenile Detention Center. Detention Center Director Greg Reynvaan and Judge Edwards started to make their case for that budget request.
Reynvaan noted that the budget is the lowest it’s been in at least four years.
“Detention isn’t static,” Reynvaan said in written comments. “It’s dynamic and fluctuates during the year. Yes, you can get an estimate on cost but it could be higher or lower during the year based on population and level of youth needs. … (You) can’t quantify youth in detention; behaviors go from no problems to throwing feces at staff.”
The Juvenile Detention Center is on track to spending $2.26 million this year and relies on about $800,000 in grants. More than $1.4 million comes out of the general fund. The county commissioners had wanted the detention center to spend $242,812 less this year, but under threat by the judges of closing the facility, last month, they restored the budget to its old levels. The judges are now requesting an extra $100,598 out of the general fund for next year.
Edwards and Reynvaan said that they have a probation officer and two detention officers who had been budgeted this year but the positions are vacant. They’re asking to fill those. They’re also asking to promote an employee to the director of court services, a request they made this year but never received approval for, Edwards noted.
Edwards pointed out that the extra help and overtime costs should cover most of the salaries of the detention officers.
“It’s our plan to fill those two positions,” he said. “Other than that, we’re not cutting anything that existed. It’s just slightly higher than what our 2012 actual was.”
“I will take the information, share it with the other commissioners,” Wilson said at the end of the 10-minute budget presentation for the detention center. “This is a process that takes a little time and I appreciate you coming in.”
The next joint meeting of the commissioners to discuss the budget is in one week.