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State courts hope to cut $3.5 million

SHARE State courts hope to cut $3.5 million

Utah state courts are facing substantial budget cuts that will result in a temporary hiring freeze, eliminating certain education programs and postponing data equipment purchases and such building improvements as painting and carpeting.

Starting next year, it also will mean laying off 24 employees from a work force of about 1,100 — including 18 court reporters who will be let go in nine months. Judicial rules will have to be changed to require that judges rely only on recording equipment rather than court reporters. Many judges prefer court reporters, especially in serious criminal cases, because the judges believe the reporters prepare a more accurate record.

The Judicial Council this week prepared a 22-point plan to slash more than $3.5 million from the budget for this fiscal year, which runs through July 2009.

The hiring freeze is intended to last until it produces $800,000 in savings.

The court's operating budget this year is $93 million. (That does not include such things as federal programs or funding for contracts and leases, which bring the state court total budget to about $105 million.)

"Hopefully, we've tried to take reductions that won't affect direct services to the public," said Dan Becker, who heads the Administrative Office of the Courts.

"The public has a right to access the courts, and we're doing our best to take reductions in ways that don't impinge on that access," Becker said.

The Utah Legislature imposed spending changes during a recent special session that affected nearly all areas of state government.

The Judicial Council also is considering ways to make $4.4 million in "permanent reductions" in the court's budget for fiscal year 2010.

Becker termed the short- and long-term implications of these financial cutbacks as "very challenging."

"When you have reductions that are due to declining economy, that's the very time the work of the court goes up," he said. "We are expecting to see increases in cases — contracts, foreclosures, debt collection — where we're already experiencing an increase and expecting that to get worse.

"Unfortunately, this will be a growth period for us at a time when we're experiencing reductions (in financing)," he said.

He said the courts are moving forward "very aggressively" with efforts to implement some electronic filing and electronic payment systems intended to ease clerical workloads, but he believes the influx of new cases will not keep pace with these particular changes.

E-mail: lindat@desnews.com