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Court cutbacks will touch many lives in many ways.

Byline: BILL BISHOP The Register-Guard

Carolyn Wade imagines two new highway signs at the state's borders.

One reads: "Come to Oregon. Commit small crimes." The other reads: "Come to Oregon. Don't pay your rent."

"I think everybody feels helpless," said Wade, Lane County Bar Association president.

She fears that budget cuts ordered for Oregon courts will degrade public safety, hamper business and erode the overall quality of life in communities statewide.

The reductions include halting state courts, including Lane County Circuit Court, from processing misdemeanor thefts and small claims cases for four months beginning in March. Evictions, divorces, disputed wills and other cases also may be stalled during that period to meet budget cuts mandated by the state Legislature.

The reductions could go even deeper if the state's December revenue forecast is as bleak as some expect. Other variables include the prospect of voters turning down a temporary income tax increase in a January election and the possibility of more across-the-board budget cutting by the Legislature to cope with shortfalls when it meets next year.

Across the nation, state budgets are shrinking and courts are feeling the pinch. The National Center for State Courts is considering a study of the problem. Until then, there is no way to compare Oregon's plight with other states.

"You are not alone. It's happening. It's hard for us to quantify," said Ann Jones, a researcher for the center.

Oregon's lawyers are worried that the public doesn't understand or care about the issue.

Wade said the day-to-day business of the courts generally doesn't touch the community as a whole, but it's crucial to the thousands of people whose livelihoods, fortunes and futures hinge on court rulings.

Lawyers see the potential consequences of the cutbacks, Wade said, and they're worried.

They see contentious and potentially violent divorces delayed without rulings on child custody and support. They see small businesses suffering from bad checks and shoplifters. They fear landlords and tenants coming to blows instead of court settlements. They see civil cases gathering cobwebs and dying as mandatory deadlines expire. They wonder how people will feel when trespassers and petty thieves discover that they're immune from prosecution.

"Those are quality-of-life issues," said Brad Berry, Yamhill County district attorney and legislative chairman for the Oregon District Attorneys Association. "Most DAs will tell you public safety ought to be the top priority."

But he acknowledged that the state's many human services agencies, schools and other services are getting hit just as hard by the budget crisis as the court system. The bottom line will hinge on taxpayers' willingness to pay for government services and on the Legislature's willingness to make hard political choices, he said.

"It's easy to say across-the-board cuts; it's not a decision. It is the first act of the cowardly. Eventually, the number of people (hurt by cuts in court services) will grow to where they make enough noise," Berry said. "Personally, I'm predicting it'll get worse before it gets better."

From her office presiding over Lane County Circuit Court, Judge Mary Ann Bearden is bracing for that possibility.

After 20 years running her private office and nearly five years on the bench, Bearden said she knows firsthand the importance of local courts for thousands of people every year.

Each year, more than 36,000 cases of all kinds end up in in Lane County Circuit Court because they can't be resolved somewhere else. Each case involves at least two sides, she said. They range from small claims, evictions, divorces and child custody to petty thefts and death-penalty murder cases.

"All of these things are a priority to the people we are dealing with," Bearden said. "If these cuts go into effect, there is no way we can provide the legal services the public expects and deserves."

Personnel costs make up 95 percent of the local court's two-year budget of $15.2 million.

Over the years, Lane County has instituted cost-saving ways to handle misdemeanor arraignments and has streamlined data entry processes to save staff time. Additionally, most of the circuit's 15 judges mediate cost-saving out-of-court settlements during the week and occasionally after hours and on weekends.

She conceded that some people believe there is fat in the court budget, but Bearden said the court operates no extra program beyond what's required by law.

"I was in the private sector all my life. I understand the concerns of private business people," she said. "I have found this business of the court in Lane County is run very efficiently. It is a misconception to believe we can absorb cuts of this magnitude without curtailing service."

Bearden said she has until Dec. 2 to finalize a budget-cutting plan for the Lane County courts to submit for the state court administrator's approval. The full extent of service cuts won't be known until then.

The cuts amount to 3 percent of the court's two-year budget. But compressed into the last four months of the biennium, the impact will feel more like an 18 percent budget cut, Bearden said.

Under orders of the Legislature in its fifth special session, implementing any of the cuts must wait until the outcome of the Jan. 28 vote on the income tax increase.

To give employees the required 30-day notice of layoff, none of the cuts can be made until March 1. The current fiscal year ends on June 30. By then, the Legislature will have established new 2003-2005 budgets for agencies statewide.

Bearden said people may be shocked when they need the court's services and discover they aren't available or there's a long wait to settle their case.

"I don't see any diminished demand from the public," she said. "I can't imagine they would want anything less."

CUTTING COURTS

To comply with the Legislature's decision to cut $8 million from court operating costs statewide this fiscal year, Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Carson has ordered court closures, staff cuts and service reductions.

Closures: All state courts, including Lane County Circuit Court, will close on Fridays between March 1 and June 30.

Staff cuts: All state court staff members will have their work hours and pay cut by 10 percent beginning March 1. Layoffs also will be required and are left up to local court administrators.

Service reductions: Courts won't process petty theft and small claims cases between March 1 and June 30. Staff cuts will slow processing on all cases. Other services are likely to be eliminated in individual counties, based on a list of priorities from the chief justice.

In Lane County: The court's two-year, $15.2 million budget was cut by $660,000 in April. Through attrition, the staff fell from 125 to 119. The latest cuts total $429,000 and will require up to a dozen layoffs in addition to a 10 percent rollback in hours for all staff member. The court may stop processing traffic violations, wills, landlord-tenant disputes and other cases from March 1 to June 30.

Variables: The depth and duration of court service reductions hinge on three things: the state's December revenue forecast, which could bring more reductions; the outcome of a Jan. 28 vote on an income tax increase, which may restore some services; the action of next year's Legislature, which can't be predicted.
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Title Annotation:Budget: Petty crime and family law cases could be affected.; Government
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Nov 9, 2002
Words:1209
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