Gov. Robert Bentley releases $2 million to maintain current court operations

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Chief Justice Roy Moore, seen here in November of 2012, said the $2 million will allow maintenance of current court operations. (Amanda Sowards/Advertiser)

Chief Justice Roy Moore, seen here in November of 2012, said the $2 million will allow maintenance of current court operations. (Amanda Sowards/Advertiser)

Gov. Robert Bentley has released $2 million of an $8.5 million conditional appropriation that Chief Justice Roy Moore says is critical for maintaining current court operations and avoiding layoffs.

“It is my desire that this $2 million will assist you in funding some additional needs until the Legislature reconvenes in 2014,” Bentley wrote in a letter to Moore. “I suggest that, at that point, further requests for FY 2014 supplemental funding be directed to the Legislature.”

The $2 million came out of approximately $3 million that was left in the General Fund at the conclusion of the 2013 fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30. Although not directly tied to the conditional appropriation, the transfer will reduce the remaining conditional appropriation to $6.5 million per an agreement between the governor and the chief justice.

Moore has repeatedly warned that the state’s court system could be forced to lay off hundreds of employees if it did not receive the full $8.5 million appropriation. To better cope with staffing issues, Moore last March ordered circuit clerk offices to close to the public on Wednesdays, in order to allow employees to catch up with processing and paperwork.

In an interview Monday afternoon, Moore said the system needed the remaining $6.5 million to avoid layoffs in the 2014 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1.

“I appreciate what the governor’s done,” Moore said. “We appreciate him giving us the $2 million from leftover funds. But reducing the conditional appropriation from $8.5 million to $6.5 million — we’re hoping money comes in and we get that.”

In a memo to employees Monday, Moore said the funds would allow the maintenance of “current operations.”

“We will maintain our current staffing levels and continue our current policy of Wednesday closings in Circuit Clerks’ offices to help ensure that court records are properly and promptly maintained, although I have allowed variation upon the request of the presiding judge of the circuit,” Moore wrote.

With the $2 million, the state’s Unified Judicial System is budgeted to receive $110.3 million in the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. The state’s courts have struggled with spending cuts in recent years, and court officials have said the system is badly understaffed. Rich Hobson, the administrative director of courts, said last month that without the full appropriation, about 150 of the state’s 1,500 employees would be laid off.

Moore in the interview said he would request a total General Fund appropriation of $114 million. Moore said this would be about $6 million smaller than the system’s 2002 budget, though there would be other sources they could draw from. He hoped to use the money for merit raises for current employees, or possibly additional hires.

The chief justice added that he did not want to lay off employees this year, particularly after a spring where the Legislature approved a two percent pay raise for education employees, and Bentley restored merit raises for state workers.

“If you don’t have enough funding to carry through in the coming year, you have to compensate by laying off people,” he said. “I did not feel it proper or just to lay off people, when other people got raises in the state.”

In 2012, the Legislature voted to increase court costs for several items in the hopes of bringing extra money to the system. Expected to raise $25 million, the fee changes only netted $12 million.

“We have the attention of the Governor and many in the Legislature, but we must continue to make our cause known to the people of Alabama,” Moore wrote. “You deserve better treatment and we intend to see that you get such consideration. We will not stop until the job is done and the Unified Judicial System is, once again, fully functional and operational.”

Bentley’s letter was dated last week, though Jeremy King, a spokesman for the governor, said it was mailed Monday. Moore said in his memo that Bentley called him Saturday to inform him of his decision.

– posted by Brian Lyman

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