Ala. courts facing layoffs without extra money

Alabama State Capitol
(Associated Press File Photo)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) – Alabama’s chief justice expects to lay off 150 employees after the state’s new fiscal year starts Oct. 1 unless the court system gets more money than the Legislature appropriated.

“In the Constitution of Alabama, we are the only branch that is guaranteed reasonable and adequate funding, and we are not getting it,” Chief Justice Roy Moore said in an interview Tuesday.

On Monday, Republican Gov. Robert Bentley signed the $1.7 billion General Fund that the Legislature approved for non-education agencies for fiscal 2014. The budget is 0.4 percent larger than the current fiscal year’s budget.

The budget gives an increase to the court system that is second only to the $16.7 million increase for the prison system. The budget increases the judicial branch of government from $102.8 million this year to $108.4 million next year. Moore said the courts needed an additional $8.5 million on top of the $5.6 million increase to maintain services at their current level.

The new budget includes a provision that allows the governor to release extra funding to some state programs if tax collections exceed expectations, and it specifies that if he wants to release any money, he must give $8.5 million to the courts first.

Moore, a Republican, said he’s grateful that the governor and legislative leaders provided a budget increase, but the courts will be in trouble without the extra $8.5 million. He predicted he will have to lay off 150 of the 1,800 employees, with the cuts coming mostly among juvenile probation officers and employees of circuit clerks’ offices in county courthouses.

Because of budget problems, many circuit clerks’ offices have curtailed the hours they are open to the public. Moore said cutting employees could hinder the offices’ ability to collect fines, a major source of funding for the state. “Shouldn’t we take care of the people in the clerks’ offices who collect the money?” he said.

The chief justice had hoped that the Legislature would start funding the court system’s juvenile probation officers from the education budget, which is in better shape than the General Fund, but he didn’t succeed. His reasoning was that the officers try to get juveniles on the right track and back in school, which means the officers should be treated like educators.

Moore, who took office in January, said morale was already a problem then, and it will increase now that the Legislature has approved a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for K-12 employees, but none for state workers, including court employees.

“We haven’t had a cost-of-living raise since 2008. Morale is already low in the clerks’ offices. They are overloaded with work. Now we are facing layoffs,” he said.

Part of the budget problems stem from higher court fees the Legislature levied in 2012 to help raise money for the court system. The Legislature predicted the fees would raise $25 million annually, but they are raising $12 million. Moore said the Legislature’s estimate was based on 100 percent collection, and that never happens.

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