9th District employees take mandatory recess
Statehouse budget cuts have found their way over the Continental Divide and into 9th Judicial District employees’ pockets.
To generate a 4 percent budget cut, judicial district administrators are requiring district employees to take three days off without pay. There is also a statewide hiring freeze and delays in swearing-in new judges.
Each of these cost-saving measures aim to meet already-imposed state budget cuts, but they might not be enough.
“We don’t know the whole story yet,” said Jim Bradford, clerk of the combined courts for Garfield County.
Employees of the district, which has courthouses in Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Rifle, Meeker and Rangely, have already taken two of their three days during October and November. No furlough days are mandated for December, but everyone in the district will have to take one more unpaid day off in January.
“We’ve gone about as far as we can go,” said 9th Judicial District administrator Solveig Olson. “If it’s severe, we’re looking at layoffs.”
She worries about small towns like Rangely, where the courts have just one employee, if more budget cuts are ordered.
One way to avoid layoffs would be to raise court fees.
Gov. Bill Owens has spoken against such fee increases, but Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey supports them, a Rocky Mountain News article reported Monday.
Fees for services such as filing for divorce, filing a complaint in small claims court and other court services are among the lowest in the nation. Raising them by 50 percent would leave Colorado’s fees in the middle range among other states and could raise as much as $9 million, the article said.
“There is the possibility of raising fees, but that would have to be approved by the Legislature,” Olson said.
If more cuts are mandated, court districts throughout the state could be forced to lay off employees or drastically reduce hours.
Bradford said he might be an advocate of such fee increases if they could help avoid these scenarios.
“It’s $99 to file for a divorce,” Bradford said. “With the amount of clerk work, domestic screenings and judge work involved, that’s the cheapest $99 you’re ever going to spend.”
Unlike some state offices that might have less work in bad economic times, court systems are especially hard-hit when the economy tanks, Bradford said.
More people file civil cases for money owed during a slow economy.
“We don’t get slower, we get more busy during these types of times,” he said. “We all work an eight-hour day and we can’t get enough done as it is.”
Employees in the 9th District have known about the budgetary problems since September.
“There have been some pretty dark clouds,” Bradford said of the budget cuts. “We’ve been trying to keep pretty positive and really professional about it.”
Bradford said court clerks in some Colorado districts have posted signs letting people know service might be slow because of the furlough days and the hiring freeze. He said such signs have not appeared at the Garfield County Combined Court office.
The Ninth Judicial District is fortunate that it has no open positions that wouldn’t be filled because of the freeze, and he believes such signs lower employee morale.
“It’s real easy to let the place be taken over with negativity,” he said, noting that the employees in Glenwood Springs have not let that happen. “So I’m pretty proud of my crew.”
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.