SANTA ANA — County supervisors and judges will meet today in a last-ditch effort to avert a legal showdown over $13.9 million that the judges insist is needed to keep them operating through June.
The judges set Friday as the deadline for the county to provide the funds, or else they will issue a court order forcing county officials to make the appropriation.
"Our meeting on Thursday is really crunch time," said Board of Supervisors Chairman William G. Steiner. "We have a great opportunity to settle this, or run a great risk that talks will collapse and we will be faced with a constitutional crisis."
Steiner, who along with Supervisor Thomas W. Wilson and their aides have been negotiating with court administrators, said the courts have provided important financial data in recent days and expressed hope that a settlement could be reached.
Despite the Friday deadline, court officials said the talks could be extended if they felt progress is being made, said Theodore E. Millard, presiding judge for Orange County Superior Court.
Millard said the courts would be forced to close down in mid-May without the $13.9-million allocation, of which about $10 million would go to pay employee salaries and benefits, including those of 37 new workers.
An additional $3.5 million would be used to pay juror and interpreter fees and cover the costs of office supplies, paper, postage and maintenance.
"This is money we need to function," said Alan Slater, executive officer of Orange County Superior Court. "We have seen a deterioration in the courthouse that demands maintenance, and our workload is at an all-time high."
County Chief Executive Officer Jan Mittermeier's office maintains that the courts have enough money to operate through the end of the fiscal year. The county has already allocated about $130 million for court operations this year--the same amount received last year.
County officials also complain that the courts have never provided financial data clearly showing their financial needs.
If the negotiations end in an impasse and the judges make good on their threat to issue a court order for the funds, the county is likely to challenge that action, forcing a hearing in which the judges would have to show that they lack "suitable" and "sufficient" funding for court operations.
Steiner said he is committed to providing adequate court funding, but said he and Wilson must first determine that amount.
"We want to sort out this problem, but we can't provide a blank check," Steiner said. "We need to avoid any kind of legal showdown. No one wins in that kind of fight."