Iowa courts brace for cutbacks

'The citizens of Iowa are going to get less service,' court administrator says

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DES MOINES — The administrator of Iowa’s court system said Tuesday he has alerted courthouse officials they may be in for more layoffs, furloughs, reduced hours or other belt-tightening measures because the upcoming state budget likely won’t include a requested $5.6 million increase.

“It’s bleak at the moment,” said State Court Administrator David Boyd.

That’s because the spending target lawmakers have for the entire state justice system — not only Iowa’s courts but also its corrections system, attorney general’s office, public safety and public defense departments and other programs — is $5.24 million for the budget year starting July 1.

Boyd said 95 percent of the court system’s costs are for personnel — and so that’s where savings will have to come from.

“We just don’t have any margin of error and so consequently the citizens of Iowa are going to get less service,” he said.

Sen. Tom Courtney, D-Burlington, one of the justice system’s budget subcommittee’s co-leaders, said he has not given up on finding more state money for court operations. But Rep. Gary Worthan, R-Storm Lake, called that a false hope with an overall justice system spending target of $748.24 million for the new fiscal year. The court system typically accounts for about a fourth of the total.

“There’s no way they can get what they asked for. We’ve only got $5.24 million in new money to work with in the entire budget,” Worthan said. “It’s going to be up to them to determine how they do that, but right now I would say it’s better than even odds that they will have a status-quo budget — that there’ll be no new money.”

Courtney said he didn’t like it several years ago when Iowa courthouses had to scale back hours they were open to the public due to furloughed employees, especially in rural counties. He hoped that situation would not recur but he said property tax reductions he had voted for previously have cut into the available revenue.

“When you throw away your wallet, you don’t have enough to pay your bills and that’s kind of where we’re at now,” Courtney said. “I think that’s why the budget’s so tight now because we gave big tax breaks.”

For the first time in four years, Boyd said, the court system is facing “a real probability” of not getting enough state money to maintain current services.

He said the court would exercise its statutory authority to keep open judgeships due to retirements as a cost-savings measure. Iowa judges who have seen one annual pay raise since 2008 likely will go without one in fiscal 2017, he said.

The state court administrator said he was hopeful the courts would receive a “proportional” share of the $5.24 million in new money.

“A lot of people think when they hear status quo, level funding or whatever, that status quo means everything remains the same. For us, status quo leaves us $5.6 million short,” Boyd said.

“It’s still early, but I have updated everyone in the judicial branch just exactly where we are and what that potentially means just in the broad sense, that we won’t be able to maintain our current level of service and that the most likely things that we have to look at ultimately will be layoffs, reduced hours, keeping vacant positions open.”

Status quo funding also could impact labor-intensive areas like drug courts, mental health courts, family-treatment courts and other specialty courts that, he said, in turn would have “a domino effect” in other areas of state government that save money due to those services.

Comments: (515) 243-7220; rod.boshart@thegazette.com

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