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State Budget Crisis Delays Pay for Vendors, Jurors

Finances: L.A. County panelists owed $500,000. O.C. doesn't feel pinch for now due to monthly pay schedule.

July 30, 1998|SHARON BERNSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pity the poor juror.

It's bad enough to be tied to the courthouse with nothing but an old paperback and a wilting checkerboard. Now it turns out that the state has been holding back on the five bucks a day that jurors make for their trouble.

In Los Angeles County courthouses and others throughout the state, thousands of jurors have gone without pay since July 1, when the state budget impasse choked off funding for all court services but salaried employees and court reporters.

In Los Angeles County alone, the state--which recently took over funding of the courts from counties--owes $500,000 to jurors, and still more to vendors and contractors who supply everything from paper clips and pencils to computers, said John Sleeter, administrator of juror services and management systems for the county.

In Orange County, where jurors usually are not paid until the month after their service, officials say they hope the budget situation will be resolved by the time the August payroll is due. The county's total juror payments average about $75,000 a month, said Alan Slater, executive officer of Orange County Superior Court.

"We know that everybody is working to resolve the problem, and we're just waiting for it to happen," Slater said. "We're hopeful."

But other functions are being affected by the budget impasse, he said. For example, Orange County courts have been forced to delay orders for office supplies.

"There's a moderate freeze situation," Slater said. "We can't do the simplest things like ordering paper. . . . So far, we're making do by holding off on some things."

San Diego County has made ends meet by borrowing the money, officials said. Ventura County officials too say they are hoping that the impasse clears before too long.

Meanwhile, as some jurors pointed out Wednesday, it's hard to get too worked up about $5 a day.

"I wasn't holding my breath anyway, considering you're dealing with the state," said Jack Taylor, a Norwalk resident stationed on a bench near the courthouse snack shop. "They'll get to you when they want to get to you."

But for the vendors, the slowdown in payments can mean a huge reduction in cash flow.

According to Sleeter, several vendors have complained, and most have yanked the 2% discount the court usually receives for paying promptly. He did not have an estimate of the amount of money owed vendors.

The problem is affecting courthouses statewide, said Martin Moshier, chief financial officer for the Administrative Office of the Courts in Sacramento.

The problem stems from the Legislature's inability to pass a budget in time for the 1998-99 fiscal year, which began July 1. With the budget already a month late, lawmakers continue to wrangle over tax cuts and other issues. It is unclear when the impasse will end.

Some court systems, like those in San Diego County, have negotiated loans from local agencies to make payments until the state money comes in.

"We obtained an additional loan from the county treasury for enough cash to pay our jurors, vendors and everybody else not covered by the state loan," said Marylin Laurence, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Superior Court.

In the past, the state has issued warrants against future appropriations when a budget was not passed in time. Vendors could cash the warrants like checks in many banks.

But in several recent court rulings, including one last week, judges have said that without an appropriation from the Legislature, the state cannot make payments on its bills. (Last week's ruling, by Superior Court Judge Robert O'Brien, was blocked by a state appellate court Tuesday, pending an appeal by unions representing public employees.)

Wednesday, the California Supreme Court refused to intervene in the case. Afterward, state Treasurer Kathleen Connell lamented the "continuing gravity of the fiscal situation the state of California finds itself in." She added that her office was hoping for a court decision on the matter soon.

Twice in the past several weeks the Legislature has voted to enact emergency appropriations to pay employees and the state's most pressing bills.

But the first and largest appropriation did not cover payments to vendors, whose ranks include jurors.

The second bill, passed in response to last week's court ruling, ponied up $49 million for courts.

Court administrators were still deciding Wednesday whether to allow some of that to be spent on jurors and other vendors.

"If there is any left over after payroll is made, they could use it to pay vendors," Moshier said. "But, statewide, $49 million is not a lot of money."

A ruling on whether the jurors would get paid with any leftover money is expected in the next few days from administrators in the state's court system. An additional $51 million may come to the court system's coffers next week, but that will still not be enough to cover all of the costs for jurors and vendors and other operating expenses, said Frank Schultz, budget manager for the Administrative Office of the Courts in California.

To some jurors, like 21-year-old Liz Pryor, a delay in payment would be a hardship. Pryor, a single mother who is on welfare, said she is counting on the $5 a day from jury service to buy new shoes and clothes for her daughter Sabrina, 3.

But most jurors aren't exactly planning major purchases: The $50 due them after two weeks of daily service will barely cover the cost of dinner and a movie.

"I don't think anyone really expects to get the money," said Russell Blank, a political aide who marked his 14th day on a trial at the Van Nuys Superior Court on Wednesday. "It's a civic duty."

Times staff writers Thao Hua and Amy Oakes and correspondent Jack Leonard contributed to this story.

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