FRANKFORT (AP) — Judicial employees across the state will have to take unpaid furloughs for three days this year to deal with cuts to the court system’s budget, Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. said Wednesday.
The furloughs will mean state courts will close statewide on Aug. 6, Sept. 4 and Oct. 15 to deal with $25.2 million in cuts made by lawmakers in a budget passed last month.
Minton’s announcement did not go over well in Boyle Circuit Clerk Joni Terry’s office.
“They aren’t very happy about it — it’s unpaid,” Terry said of her staff. “They haven’t had a raise since 2008, not even a tiny cost-of-living raise, and now this. And this might not be the end of it. The chief justice’s memo said they are taking it six months at a time. Who knows what might happen next year.”
It’s the first time in modern history that courts have been ordered closed to balance a budget. The move does not affect county offices like sheriff’s departments or county clerks.
“Our situation is serious,” Minton said in a written statement. “In spite of our efforts to secure adequate funding, the Legislature’s appropriation is far short of what is necessary to operate the Kentucky court system for the next two years. These recent reductions are especially challenging because they’ve come quickly on the heels of other cutbacks.”
Minton said the furloughs were necessary because lawmakers cut the court system’s operating budget by $16.2 million and transferred $9 million from the court system to the state’s General Fund.
Like the legislative and executive branches, the judicial branch has been hit hard by an economic recession that began in 2008, the effects of which still linger in Kentucky. The court system has reduced employment by 282 people since 2008.
To generate cash, Minton said the judicial system will start charging schools $10 for criminal background checks that used to be done for free. The charge will increase from $15 to $20 to all others seeking background checks.
“Until now, we were able to take aggressive measures to avoid furloughs and keep courts open,” Minton said in the statement. “But there are only so many places to cut in a court operations budget that is 86 percent personnel. When there’s such a large gap between what we ask for and what we receive, difficult decisions must be made.”
Circuit Judge Darren Peckler, who presides over the 50th Judicial Circuit made up of Boyle and Mercer counties, said the shutdowns, will impact circuit, district and family courts, which will have to reschedule dockets to make up for the three lost days. Family court could be the most worrisome, Peckler said, because some emergency juvenile and domestic violence matters must be heard within a certain time frame. Two of the furlough days will be on Mondays, when family court is in session, Peckler said.
“We’ll survive it,” Peckler said. “It’s just one of those budget-saving things and we have to trust that the chief justice did the best he could with what he had to work with.”
A slow economic rebound led to a lean, two-year state budget that forced sharp cuts on most government agencies, left employees without pay raises again and erased a planned cost-of-living increase from the monthly pension checks of retirees.
The measure calls for 8.4 percent cuts to most government agencies and programs, which would save some $300 million.
Many state agencies already have cut spending by more than 30 percent over the past four years.
To generate fast cash, lawmakers passed a tax amnesty plan that Gov. Steve Beshear believes could collect a badly needed $55 million over the next two years. It would be the state’s first offer of tax amnesty in a decade, and would forgive some penalties if people come forward and pay their taxes.
Advocate reporter Todd Kleffman contributed to this story.