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Court sets staff pay as a priority

Senior Editor Regular News

Court sets staff pay as a priority

Senior Editor

Thanks for the pay raises, but they’re still not enough.

That’s the bottom line in the State Courts System Legislative Budget Request for FY 2014-15, unveiled at a public hearing October 14, by Dorothy Wilson, chief of Budget Services for the Office of the State Courts Administrator.

The new budget seeks 42 new positions and $33 million in new funding over the current budget of $443.4 million, a 7 percent increase. The court’s current budget is 0.6 percent of the total state budget of $74.2 billion.

Again, the upcoming fiscal year’s budget request makes increasing judicial branch employees’ pay a top priority.

In July, court employees earning $40,000 or less received $1,400 raises; and those earning more than $40,000 received $1,000.

While State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner expressed gratitude at the end of the 2013 legislative session that her employees finally saw their first raises in more than six years, the new budget request details why more is needed to hire and retain good employees in the judicial branch.

The new budget requests a minimum 3.5 percent competitive salary increase for all State Courts System employees, effective July 1, 2014. At a minimum, court employees should be included in any general competitive salary increase that may be given to other state employees.

Judicial officers are included in the pay increase request, which totals $5.76 million.

The budget request recognizes that there has been a big lag between salaries and the rate of inflation, which has increased 15.9 percent cumulatively over the past seven years.

“A 3.5 percent adjustment in the next fiscal year is a critical step in addressing the impact the inflation rate has had on [employees’] buying power.. . . The lack of regular salary increases to combat inflation during recent tough economic times was a reality for workers in both the private and public sectors. As the economy improves, employers are becoming more able to address the need for cost-of-living adjustments,” the budget request argues.

“Our request would provide an adjustment to State Court System employees’ base salaries, as well as to allow the branch to compete with other governmental sector employees to attract and retain a competent, skilled workforce.”

A separate budget request for $9.86 million addresses the equity and retention pay issue spurring many employees to leave the judicial branch for higher paying jobs in the other two branches of government.

Really, twice that much money is needed, but the budget request asks that the $18.8 million be spread out over two years.

“State Courts System employees’ pay, in general, continues to lag behind competing employees in state and local government,” according to the budget request.

“As an example, a comparison of average salaries by class reflects that the average salary of 43 executive branch classes is 11.45 percent higher than the average salary of comparable SCS classes.”

Since January 2011, OSCA lost 18 employees — or 10.5 percent of its work force — to the executive and legislative branches. The average pay increase for those who left the judicial branch was $5,621, a 12-percent pay hike.

Four employees were rewarded to leave the judicial branch with pay increases of more than $10,000, along with enhanced benefits packages.

Last fiscal year’s raises, the budget request stresses, “had no effect on the SCS’s ability to keep pace with executive branch agencies, since it was given to all eligible state employees.”

At the Supreme Court Clerk’s Office, three veteran staff members walked out the door for better paying jobs, a 22 percent turnover rate in core clerk positions.

“The [clerk’s] office has had to repeatedly re-advertise in order to find anyone who appeared qualified and who would accept the minimum salary for these positions,” the budget request says. “These new hires require an extensive training period, up to a year or more, before they are able to perform without constant supervision.

“The loss of key managers and other high performers, who had developed broad knowledge bases of critical judicial operations, has brought significant organizational challenges in already difficult times. These challenges are compounded by the loss of long-term employees who have recently retired or will be retiring, resulting in an essential need to develop and retain existing employees to ensure expertise.”

Among the 42 new positions requested are 32 (or 27 FTEs) for law clerks to support death-penalty post-conviction matters, with a price tag of $1.9 million.

Last legislative session, there was criticism of death cases languishing for too long, debate over the Legislature taking over the courts’ rulemaking authority, and the eventual passage of the Timely Justice Act that hammered out a cooperative arrangement among the three branches to speed death penalty appeals, and left rulemaking with the courts.

An administrative order entered in September 2011 (AOSC11-32) required that chief judges of each circuit send quarterly reports to the Supreme Court on capital cases.

Rule changes may be recommended by the Capital Post-Conviction Proceedings Subcommittee and ultimately adopted by the Supreme Court that could tighten time periods governing the processing of post-conviction actions, the budget request noted.

“Together these factors call attention to the need for sufficient law clerks needed to assist trial court judges in processing the often complex and legally significant matters related to the sentence of death.”

Another 10 FTEs, at $1.18 million, would provide general counsel positions to the First, Second, Third, Seventh, Eighth, 12th, 14th, 16th, 18th, and 19th judicial circuits.

“Without the funding necessary to establish the positions requested, these circuits will continue to be exposed to potentially large liability expenses due to disparate legal advice and counsel from multiple sources within the judiciary and court administration,” the budget request explains. “These circuits will be able to more efficiently allocate resources, more quickly resolve legal issues, and more effectively implement policies and procedures by having a general counsel who acts as a primary source of administrative legal counsel within the circuit.”

Of the new funding requested, $7.1 million — or 22 percent — is for facility maintenance issues for five courthouses: the Supreme Court, and the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth district courts of appeal buildings.

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