By Jack Brammer
FRANKFORT — Employees of Kentucky’s court systems won’t have to take unpaid furlough days during this calendar year, Kentucky Supreme Court Chief Justice John D. Minton Jr. said Thursday.
Minton said the state’s judicial branch is wrestling with a $28.7 million budget shortfall in its $186 million operating budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1. As a result, he would not eliminate the possibility of furloughs for courts workers in the first six months of 2014.
Minton also said layoffs have not been eliminated as a budget-control option this calendar year, but there are no plans for them at this time.
“We live from month to month,” Minton told reporters after delivering his annual State of the Judiciary Address to the legislature’s Interim Joint Judiciary Committee.
Minton reminded state lawmakers that the judicial branch furloughed its 3,300 non-elected employees for three days last year to save nearly $1.2 million. That marked the first time in the court system’s modern history that it had to shut down because of a funding shortfall.
“This meant that services at all four levels of the court system were unavailable to the citizens who needed them,” Minton said. “I can tell you with all candor that this was one of the most disheartening actions I have had to take while serving as chief justice.”
Minton, of Bowling Green, was elected to the Supreme Court in 2006. He became chief justice in June 2008.
Minton’s summary to lawmakers was that “the state of the judiciary is strong but frankly it is showing strain.”
He said Kentucky’s 4.3 million residents generate nearly 1 million court cases each year. To meet that demand, the judicial branch gets about 3 percent of the state budget, Minton said.
In the fiscal year that ends June 30, the branch had to cut $25.2 million from its budget — 86 percent of which is tied to personnel. It imposed tighter restrictions on filling vacancies and placed a cap of 2,200 on the number of participants accepted into drug court. That cap was lifted in November.
Another financial woe, Minton said, is the court system’s obsolete case management system, which is based on technology nearly 25 years old and is running on programming that is more than 10 years old. A separate database is required in each county, he said.
“That means we maintain 120 databases for our current case management system at the trial court level. We also maintain separate systems and databases for the appellate courts,” he said. “None of these systems are able to communicate with one another, meaning that we cannot share case information among counties or levels of the court system.”
He expressed hope that lawmakers will allow the court system to borrow enough money to address the problem. The courts would not need additional state General Fund money to pay back the debt, he said.
“No one knows how much longer this Band-Aid approach will work,” he said.
In his address, Minton said the judicial branch recently has opened the Jefferson County Veterans Treatment Court, the first court of its kind in Kentucky. It provides treatment and support services to help veterans stabilize their mental health and recover from addiction. It is funded by a three-year, $350,000 federal grant.
Minton said the judicial branch has started the process of applying for a similar grant for Hardin County and is looking at expanding the program to Fayette and Christian counties. These four counties are home to the majority of Kentucky veterans, he said.