All Fresno County courthouses outside of the city of Fresno to close
Seven Fresno County courthouses outside the city of Fresno will close this summer, and court employees will be asked to take a 10% pay cut or early retirement to help bail out the state’s financial mess.
The drastic cuts mean all court matters — traffic, civil, family law, probate and criminal — will be handled at the downtown Fresno courthouses, which already have heavy workloads.
“We are greatly disappointed and concerned and, quite frankly, angry,” Gary Hoff, presiding judge of Fresno County Superior Court, said Friday while delivering news that took some by surprise.
That’s because court employees have skipped pay raises, taken furloughs and found other ways to tighten their belts to save about $12 million in reserve, said Tamara Beard, executive officer of Fresno County Superior Court.
The county court system had planned to use those reserves so it could operate through fall 2013, said Beard.
But under Gov. Jerry Brown’s revised spending plan, released last week, courts statewide must turn over their reserves to the state by June 30, Beard said. The state has handled court expenses since California consolidated county court systems in 1997; their expenses are not part of county budgets.
With the Fresno court system facing a potential $5.4 million deficit by July 1, Hoff said the court’s executive staff decided to close courts in Coalinga, Firebaugh, Reedley, Sanger and Selma on July 30, and the Clovis and Kingsburg courts on Aug. 6.
Judges and about 40 court employees will be reassigned to the downtown Fresno courthouses. The move will save $2 million, but half of those savings will be directed back to the state, Beard said.
Much of the plan to consolidate court work is still to be determined, Hoff said. The cuts won’t affect juvenile court matters, he said.
News of the courthouse closures took some by surprise.
“Desperate times calls for desperate measures, but it doesn’t sound like that much savings to me when considering the needs of the people in those outlying areas,” said longtime Fresno defense attorney Pete Jones.
Mendota City Council Member Joseph Riofrio said the closure of the Firebaugh courthouse will force poor residents to take long bus rides to Fresno. It also will put a crimp on public safety, he said.
“It’s 16 miles round trip to Firebaugh,” Riofrio said. “It’s 70 miles round trip to Fresno. That’s a lot of fuel for our police officers who will now have to go to Fresno to take care of criminal matters.”
It’s an even longer drive for residents of Coalinga — 70 miles one way. “We all know it’s bad times, so I’m not hollering at the messenger,” said Coalinga City Manager Darrel Pyle. “But I wish we could have had the opportunity to have been in the conversation before the decision was made. Maybe we could have worked something out.”
Hoff, whose job as presiding judge is to make sure the courts run smoothly, said the urgency of the situation did not give court officials time to consult with community leaders in advance and still meet pending deadlines.
And to be fair to court employees who will be directly impacted by the cuts, Hoff said, community leaders were told at the same time — Friday afternoon — as everyone else.
Other cost-cutting measures include asking employees to take early retirement; asking non-union employees to take a 10% pay cut starting July 1; and notifying union employees about the potential for layoffs, Beard said.
In addition, all employees will continue to take 12 mandatory furlough days next fiscal year, she said.
The goal is to cut about 70 positions, said Beard, who nearly cried when she began to discuss “the impacts to our wonderful employees” whose ranks have dwindled from 552 four years ago to about 490 today.
By Pablo Lopez