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Court Shortfall Seen as Funding Bill Gains

Government: O.C. system would get $24 million if state bailout, approved by Assembly, becomes law. That's not enough to keep things running, judges say.


SANTA ANA — A court funding bill approved by the state Assembly on Monday would provide $24 million to Orange County's financially troubled trial courts but still leave them with a shortfall of more than $15 million.

Without more money, judges said, the courts might have to shut down in early May--a gloomy scenario that County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier's staff disputes.

The bill, passed last month by the state Senate, would allocate $290 million to courts across California. Gov. Pete Wilson is expected to sign the legislation soon, preventing some courts from closing later this spring.

But Orange County already had anticipated a $21.9-million state allocation in its 1996-97 courts budget, leaving just $2 million that can be applied to an anticipated $18.9-million shortfall.

"This brings us up to the funding we had been expecting for this year," said Marlene Nelson, assistant executive officer for the Orange County Superior Court. "It's not a great fix."

The courts already have received about $130 million from the county for fiscal 1997, which ends in June. That is roughly the same amount they got for all of the previous year.

Judges say courts cannot be expected to live within last year's budget, however, because they have hired new employees and been forced to give others retroactive pay raises delayed by the county's 1994 bankruptcy.

Theodore E. Millard, presiding judge for Orange County Superior Court, said budgets for the Sheriff's Department and district attorney's office also have increased.

County officials and judges have been at odds for months over court funding. Last month, the state Judicial Council ruled that the county should pay the $18.9 million to the courts.

The ruling enables local judges to order the county to provide the money. But judges said they would execute such an order only as a last resort and would prefer to negotiate an agreement with county officials.

Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner has created an ad hoc committee made up of himself and Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson to study the issue. He expressed hope last week that a showdown can be averted through dialogue.

Millard said Monday he hopes talks with Steiner and Wilson will go better than the previous negotiations with Mittermeier's staff.

"I hope we can sit down and solve this without spending thousands of dollars in attorneys' fees," he said. "It seems like the county executive Jan Mittermeier doesn't have any interest in settling this matter outside the courts."

Mittermeier and other officials have argued that the county simply cannot afford to allocate $18.9 million to the courts without making severe cuts elsewhere in the county's tight budget.

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