Combined courts facing budget cuts

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Instead of planning year-end vacations, Diana Myer and her staff at the Moffat County Combined Courts office are dividing up days for state-mandated furloughs.

And despite some $90,000 in costs slashed in recent months by the 14th Judicial District including key legal advice programs offered to residents in need Myer and others fear the worst may be yet to come in light of Colorado's budget woes.

"There isn't a lot we can do," said Myer, Moffat County Court clerk. "I just say, 'Let's keep a positive mindset as much as possible.'"

With the state running a $388 million budget shortfall and all departments potentially on the chopping block, moods are grim in offices across the 14th Judicial District, according to Evan Herman, administrator for the district covering Moffat, Routt and Grand counties.

"This is the worst situation we've ever been in," said Herman, a 21-year district veteran.

In the wake of Gov. Bill Owens' first round of summer cuts which has totaled $220 million from the $13.8 billion budget approved by lawmakers for the 2002-03 fiscal year Herman said the district was forced to cut three specific district-wide public legal assistance programs.

The most successful, a five-year-old weekly legal workshop in which people signed up for advice from attorneys regarding mostly civil cases, child custody or divorce issues was shut down Sept. 30.

"We would have expanded it if we could in all three counties," Herman said of the program's success.

Three attorneys in the respective counties offered advice to individuals who, in many cases, were unable to afford a lawyer. Those seeking advice weren't represented by the attorneys before judges, he said.

For Moffat County, attorney Rebekah A. McBride typically advised anywhere from one to six individuals over three hours during the Thursday clinics.

Typically, people were preparing to represent themselves in matters ranging from a high school student's emancipation, small claims, divorce or in an attempt to change to a judge's order in a child custody case, McBride said.

More often than not, they weren't preparing for a second party represented by a lawyer, she said.

Sometimes they just needed help filling out various legal forms.

McBride, whose private practice started locally in 1985, called the workshop's cut a "big blow."

"For certain people, it will cause cases to be dismissed, people may not know their rights, give up their rights or their cases could be dragged out," McBride said.

Two other programs one facilitating out-of-court settlements of civil cases, and the other, a juvenile intervention service designed to head-off continued problems with youngsters also got the axe, Herman said.

Court clerks are prohibited from advising any clients.

"Unless it's a procedural thing, there isn't a lot we can do," Myer said. "That's very frustrating."

In yet more fallout from the state's summer cuts, court clerk staff will be forced to take a one-day furlough in October, November and January.

Clerks who update court files, collect fees and fines, prepare weekly dockets and ensure judges have files needed for hearings would receive furlough according their employment status, Myer said.

"I'm sure there'll be days when we're really short, be we can manage," she said.

Still, more cuts are on the way and nobody knows how deep they'll go.

To date, there haven't been layoffs, Herman said.

"Everything is on the table right now," he said. "If each department was hit proportionately, it would be about $252,000 in cuts. That would be crippling."

"There's a good possibility that additional days of mandatory furlough will be imposed on everyone."

Politics, Herman said, will play a role in when the statewide cuts will be announced.

"I'm not sure the state's going to deal too much with this until after the election," he said.

For the public while hours at the court clerk's offices could be rolled back Herman said safety will remain the top priority in all offices.

"Restraining orders, timely warrants and all other matters of public safety will always be at the top of the list," he said.

Dan Hopkins, press secretary for Owens, did not return repeated phone calls Monday.

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