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State budget cuts force changes in North County courts

VISTA — A $14 million state budget cut announced last week is forcing the closure of some San Diego County courtrooms, including the early Friday closure of business offices and ultimately the layoffs of at least 250 court employees. 

The reduced funding impacts the fiscal year beginning July 1, when 10 courtrooms are expected to close, including a probate court and juvenile dependency courtroom, both in North County, a downtown civil department, six downtown criminal courtrooms and the Ramona branch court.

Karen Dalton, Superior Court spokeswoman, said that the changes should be effective by September, and there will be an immediate, noticeable change in the amount of time to process paperwork such as in civil court or family court cases.

“When you have fewer people working, it may take longer to process things,” she said.

Also, people who live in North County and need probate court will have to utilize the probate court downtown when North County closes, she said.

All of the court’s business offices will also begin closing at noon each Friday, and by the 2013-14 fiscal year, there is a tentative plan to implement two unpaid furlough days each month for all court employees.

The job eliminations will take place throughout the next two years.

The 2013-14 annual budget is expected to see a decrease of $26 million, a closure of 30 courtrooms, and the elimination of 60 jobs.

“The cuts envisioned by our budget reduction plan will affect every judge, court employee and ultimately the litigants, court users and citizens of San Diego County,” presiding Judge Robert Trentacosta said in a statement.

Jobs lost will include student workers, law clerks, retired rehires, retired commissioners and paid juvenile court pro tem hearing officers, according to Dalton.

“Right now, what we’re doing is offering a voluntary separation incentive program to any full-time employee,” she said.

By the 2013-14 fiscal year, the county’s court system is expected to operate on less than $150 million, compared to the current fiscal year of $190.5 million, Dalton said.

Judge Trentacosta said the impact of the recommended reductions on the county’s court system would fundamentally alter the way the county does business.

“No court can reduce its current operating budget by 21 percent, on top of reductions incurred during the preceding four fiscal years, without radically altering the structure, composition and capability of the court,” he said.