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Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin Winter 2015

Court Funding Lloyd W. Gathings, Gathings Law Court Funding:Not A Sexy Discussion, But One That Is Vital To The Bar and The Citizens of Alabama We all tend to assume that because the Alabama Constitution requires the legislature to adequately and reasonably fund the court system, that such funding will in fact occur each fiscal year. Unfortunately, that is a very erroneous assumption. The first budget passed this year by the Alabama legislature, which thankfully was vetoed by Governor Bentley, underfunded the courts by such a large amount that there would have been only four Circuit Court Clerk employees for all of the civil, criminal and family courts in Jefferson County -- only 4! The Courts could not have operated, even on a small scale. The budget that was later signed into law by Governor Bentley for the 2016 fiscal year gave the courts "level funding". That means that the courts were funded at approximately the same amount as for the 2015 fiscal year. It may seem that this level funding is not so bad, until you take into account two factors. First, the cost to run the courts, just as everything else, has increased over the last year. It will take more money this fiscal year to fund the same personnel and facilities as last year. Second, the court funding for fiscal year 2015 was woefully inadequate, which means it is even more inadequate for fiscal year 2016. For example, the Jefferson County Clerk's office was trimmed to 40 people under the 2015 funding. The minimum number of employees needed in that office is 65. The serious understaffing could get even worse under the 2016 budget. How underfunded is the Unified Judicial System, which does not include the appellate courts, for fiscal year 2016 which has already started? Chief Justice Moore sent a budget request to the legislature for $216,540,558 -- the minimum amount that would fund the courts adequately. This amount would be funded from the General Fund and some other revenues earmarked for the Unified Judicial System. The amount actually budgeted for the Unified Judicial System for fiscal year 2016 is $173,128,585. There will be a $43,411,973 shortfall, about 20% below an adequate budget. All of this assumes that some new taxes on cigarettes, motor fuel, adult films, etc., will increase the General Fund revenues by the estimated amounts. In the Jefferson County Clerk's office we have dedicated, long term employees with much experience. These employees have stepped up beyond what should be expected of them and they are performing jobs normally performed by 2 or 3 employees. While doing so, they have not received a cost of living increase since 2008 -- 8 years with no cost of living increase. The possibility of losing any of these employees is a nightmare. Any employee lost for any reason would have to be replaced with a Clerk Specialist 1 at a salary of $23,000, which reaches that amount only by the use of discretionary funds that are needed elsewhere. The adult living wage in Jefferson County is $21,588. That is the amount of earnings to keep an adult out of the defined poverty level. So the starting wage is barely above that. If the new employee has one child, the living wage is $42,000. The new employee with one child would be making wages well below the poverty level of earnings. And the new employee would not be able for years to fulfill the 2 or 3 jobs that current employees are doing. Another example of the inadequate funding is the funding for the bailiffs in the Jefferson County criminal courts. AOC pays for these bailiffs, but only because the Jefferson County courts have a contract with Jefferson County to reimburse to AOC the salaries and benefits for these bailiffs each year. For 2016, Jefferson County will pay AOC $1,055,193.52 so that we can have bailiffs in our criminal courts and two district courts that deal with issues including domestic violence. Despite all of this under-funding, the Jefferson County Unified Judicial System had collections for the 2014 fiscal year of $24,253,587.90. $6,371,167.74 of this went into the General Fund. Almost $3,000,000 more was earmarked for non-court disbursements, e.g., Citizenship Trust -- American Village, Montevallo. Our court system is one of the three branches of government and must, under the Alabama Constitution, be adequately funded. Help educate our citizens and legislators about this systemic problem and encourage that measures be taken to remedy it. G 34 Birmingham Bar Association


Birmingham Bar Association Bulletin Winter 2015
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