Citing cost, convenience and a decision Friday to indefinitely delay construction on a new Santa Clarita Valley courthouse, Santa Clarita City Council members are urging Los Angeles County court officials to restore court services locally.
However, court officials are saying that residents need to become accustomed to fewer services in the coming year, and the restoration of previous fiscal cuts is unlikely.
“What the (City Council) wants is to get the full range of court services be provided here in the Santa Clarita Valley,” said Mike Murphy, intergovernmental relations officer for the city.
There are three main areas that affect residents, according to issues that were brought to council members’ attention at their Oct. 9 meeting, Murphy said.
City Council members addressed a letter to Judge Steven Jahr, who oversees the Administrative Office of the Courts, asking his office to re-evaluate the state’s decision on a new, full-service courthouse in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Relatively minor issues of jurisprudence, such as reporting for jury service, as well as the handling of small claims and civil cases, are now split between San Fernando and Chatsworth courthouses. These issues were previously handled by the Santa Clarita courthouse until Feb. 1.
“We’ve already seen a big reduction,” said Mary Hearn, spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Superior Court, regarding the court system’s efforts to address a shrinking budget.
“I would say that what the public needs to expect in the coming years is a further reduction of services, and that’s what the public needs to be prepared for,” Hearn said.
She added that any decision on a new courthouse would have to come from the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts, which is responsible for deciding the court’s spending priorities.
While county court officials had to address a $30 million budget reduction for the fiscal year 2012-13 starting in July, the local reductions in service weren’t all motivated by cost.
Hearn explained the consolidation of civil and small claims caseloads to the Chatsworth courthouse as a maneuver that was based on the efficiency of the court’s resources, not as a cost-cutting move. The Chatsworth court was better equipped to handle these cases due to its staff, Hearn said.
As far as making jurors report to the San Fernando courthouse before they find out if they will have to serve on a jury in San Fernando or Santa Clarita, that was a cost-cutting move, Hearn said.
She said there were two full-time staffers who handled jury service exclusively in Santa Clarita, and they were re-assigned.
The county’s court system has reduced its size from 5,600 employees to 4,800 over the last 10 years.
The budget crunch also puts a pinch on law enforcement resources, according to local law enforcement officials.
When detectives and deputies need to review cases or evidence, trips to the San Fernando Valey can eat up valuable time and resources, according to Lt. Brenda Cambra of the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station.
“They made the cuts based on the courts’ needs, but the reality is that the cuts do affect everybody,” she said.
And the budget projections are bleak for the court system, Hearn explained.
“We’re looking at further cutting services,” Hearn said. “Somewhere between $54 million on the low end and $82 million on the high end,” were the estimates given for the budget reduction facing the county’s courts in the next fiscal year.
She added that the projections were based on the passage of Proposition 30, which means that the deficit could be even worse if Gov. Jerry Brown’s ballot measure calling for sales-tax and income-tax hikes don’t pass on Tuesday’s ballot.