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By Mark Toor of Thechiefleader.com

Budget cuts and staffing shortages in the state court system can be blamed for at least one death, the president of the New York State Court Clerks Association told a State Legislature budget hearing Feb. 4.

Pamela Browne: Restless over five-year contract delay.

Pamela Browne: Restless over five-year contract delay.

‘Already Spread Too Thin’

Her concerns were echoed by Patrick Cullen, president of the New York State Supreme Court Officers Association, one of two unions representing Court Officers, who also testified before the joint State Assembly-State Senate proceeding. He urged the committee to make no further cuts in the budget for the financially-strapped courts. “Our Court Officers are quite candidly spread too thin,” he said.

Court Clerks Association President Pamela Browne told her story: “A woman went to Family Court seeking an order of protection and she was told to go to Criminal Court as it was past the hour that Family Court was in operation. There was a strict closing time to not yield overtime, and the directive indicated that such cases were to be referred to Criminal Court. Previously, she would have been allowed to file in Family Court.

“Criminal Court sent her back to Family Court, as they were probably unaware of Family Court’s closing at that hour. Dejected, she obviously gave up and left. She was subsequently killed by her husband.

“If she were a DuPont or a Carnegie this case would have received a lot of attention. But she was an ordinary New Yorker with no name recognition or fame. This was the ultimate—someone lost their life so the courts would not incur overtime costs. What price is a life? Lack of funding has life-and-death consequences.”

Governor Cuomo slashed the courts’ budget request in 2011 by $170 million, deeper than the Chief Judge at the time, Jonathan Lippman, said the system could absorb. At the same time, the state was offering buyouts but not replacing employees who left. Further, about 400 court employees were laid off in 2011.

Cut 250 From Title

Ms. Browne said the cuts left the system with 250 fewer Court Clerks. Among the steps OCA took to deal with the personnel and budget cuts was reducing the hours courts were open, instituting a freeze on hiring and allowing overtime only with special permission.

In addition to the staffing issues, both unions are among four court-employee groups that have yet to settle on a new contract; the last contracts expired in March 2011. The other two unions with contracts outstanding are the New York State Court Officers Association and another representing Nassau County court employees.

At one point, 10 court unions formed a coalition called the Core Issues Alliance to demand better terms from the state, but most of those unions have since settled. The alliance opposed an agreement reached by the Civil Service Employees Association, and members demonstrated outside District Council 37 headquarters with an inflatable rat to pressure members of Local 1070, which represents titles such as Court Reporter and Court Librarian, to vote down a tentative pact.

High Hopes Despite Lowball

Ms. Browne said in an interview Feb. 10 that her union was in “the very, very early stages” of negotiations. She expected talks to resume sometime this spring although the Office of Court Administration had not budged from its proposal in February of last year. Asked what improvements the union was seeking, she said, “Everything.”

Mr. Cullen said, “We are working with 13.3 percent security staffing less than in 2009, while absorbing more work, done by more judges, in shorter periods of time…Court parts formerly staffed by four or five officers are now staffed by two or three. Supervisors normally in charge of one part are now charged with managing three or four.”

Besides increasing the risk to court employees, spectators and jurors, he said, the system cannot afford to send officers to annual training or even let them take accrued time off.

“Early closures and the cessation of overtime have left our buildings empty at a much earlier hour than in the past,” he continued. “We have found homeless people living in the bowels of our courthouses and discover people in unauthorized areas on a very regular basis. These are avoidable security breaches that in the past, at full staffing, would be unheard of.”

‘Can’t Sustain Manic Pace’

Ms. Browne said that with the drop in staffing, her members are overworked. “There are Court Clerks working off the clock because they are diligent and conscientious and do not want to see unfinished work the next day; they want to start off clean,” she said. “Working at a manic pace should not and cannot be sustained. Additionally, working off the clock is illegal. Not all courtrooms can be staffed, we have clerks covering multiple parts and we have had judges sitting in chambers for lack of staff.”

Things could get even worse, she said, “Clerks are retiring in unprecedented numbers for a non-buyout year. The hiring freeze and zeroes have erased the career path.”

Court Clerks are promoted by examination from the ranks of Court Officers. Court Officers have been reclassified three times, resulting in higher salaries, but Court Clerks have not been reclassified at all, she said. The one-sided reclassification has shrunk the salary differential between the two jobs, she said.

Downward Mobility

“The job of a Court Clerk has become so challenging and with such a small pay difference that Officers would prefer to roll around on the floor with defendants and litigants,” she said. Some Clerks are choosing to go back to the Officer ranks, she added.

“There must be sufficient funding for the courts, the Judiciary and court clerks,” she said. “The budget must have sufficient funding which would allow us to be reclassified. Equilibrium must be restored. The rank structure must be preserved…

“The loss of 250 Court Clerks saved $22.5 million annually for the last six years, a total of $135 million. We have more than paid for our own reclassification. We who made the biggest effort and sacrifice in keeping the courts functioning smoothly must reap our just reward.”

Mr. Cullen referred to testimony by Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks before the State Commission on Legislative, Judicial and Executive Compensation “espousing the financial woes of the judiciary. What is interesting to note is that much of what he said applies to our members, too.”

He noted that Judge Marks had proposed a $27,000 increase for judges, who now make $174,000 a year. (The last raise for judges was in 2012, phased in over three years, following a 13-year pay freeze.)

“My members are certainly not seeking such an exorbitant wage hike, just a fair and equitable wage over the last five years,” he said.

But, he added, the issues cited by Judge Marks—the high cost of living in New York State, inflation and the lack of an automatic cost-of-living adjustment—affected Court Clerks as well as judges.