Superior Court presiding judge implores Senate to OK $31M FY 2015 appropriation from General Fund


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ST. THOMAS - While the V.I. Superior Court has tried to ease the employees' workload and reduce its cost of operation by transitioning to an electronic filing system, the court instead has been forced to abandon its effort, which already cost it $1.25 million, after the contractor said it no longer makes the judicial software.

That only added to the grim picture V.I. Superior Court Presiding Judge Michael Dunston painted Thursday for the Senate Finance Committee during the court's budget hearing.

The court has requested $31.27 million from the General Fund during Fiscal Year 2015.

The Superior Court's FY 2015 budget request is $4.3 million more than the governor's General Fund recommendation. Because it is a separate branch of government, the court makes it own budget request, independent of the central government's recommendation.

During budget testimony before the Senate Finance Committee on St. Thomas on Thursday, Dunston spoke of the hardships that the court has faced already in recent years, including the shutdown of its St. John operational center this year; the quick-fix repairs of its two main complexes which require more serious; long-term renovations; and the hiring freeze that has left its existing employees working copious amounts of unpaid overtime.

Budget constraints

To date, the court's allotment for FY 2014 is about $20.87 million, and its un-allotted available balance is $6.86 million, according to the post-audit report filed by V.I. Legislature Post Auditor Jose George.

For the upcoming fiscal year, the court is requesting $31.27 million in General Fund monies, of which 57 percent would go to personnel services; 22 percent would go to fringe benefits; and the remainder would be for capital outlays, utilities, supplies and other services and charges.

"The Superior Court has been repeatedly called upon to bear a disproportionate share of the budget burdens, enduring unparalleled budgetary reductions. Drastic cuts can no longer be sustained without significant adverse impacts on the delivery of services," Dunston said.

The court for several years has been operating on a "beyond skeleton" budget, according to Dunston.

The financial history, as presented by Chief Financial Officer Paulette Rabsatt Simmonds, is that the court has had its budget slashed more than many of the other government agencies.

In 2013, the court received an appropriation of $23 million, which later was boosted by authorized increases that bumped the number up to $27.2 million, slightly less than the $27.6 million authorized at the end of the prior fiscal year.

During FY 2012, the court's appropriation was cut an unprecedented 26.64 percent, from $28.8 million to $21.1 million, Rabsatt Simmonds said. During FY 2012 and FY 2013, the court had to rely on reprogramming prior-year encumbrances and using reserves to boost its final authorized levels, which came out to be $27.6 million in FY 2012, she said.

"Although the court understands the gravity of the territory's financial dilemma, it is imperative for this community - as well as the Legislature and the executive branch - to also recognize that we cannot and should not put a price tag on justice or its significance to our community," Dunston said.

The court currently has 55 vacancies, of which 10 are not funded and cannot be posted to be filled. The low pay and the long hours could affect the court's ability to hire and retain its employees, who Dunston said suffer from low morale already.

"They have been working too much with too little for too long," he said.

The court's most recent statistics showed that the court had more than 5,500 new civil, criminal, probate and family cases in FY 2013. More than 5,800 cases were closed in the same period.

The court also took on more than 9,900 new traffic cases, and closed more than 11,000 traffic cases in the same time period.

Case-management system

Senators suggested that one of the costs that the court consider cutting back on was storage, which could be reduced if the court went to an electronic filing system.

While the court already transitioned to an electronic filing case management system in November last year, the court was forced to return to its former paper system earlier this month.

The court had signed a $1.68 million contract with electronic case-management system vendor American Cadastre, or AmCad, more than three years ago. AmCad notified the court on June 23 that it is "exiting the justice software solutions business," effective immediately.

The court already paid the vendor $1.25 million, and may be forced to take legal action, according to Dunston, who said that the court has repeatedly reached out to the company since the unexpected announcement, but the company has not responded.

However, the court has been in correspondence with the National Center for State Courts, which acknowledged that several esteemed companies in that line of work have gone out of business this year and others, including AmCad, have taken hard hits, Dunston said.

AmCad apparently had a $13 million contract with the state of Oklahoma, though the state backed out $3 million into the project, he said.

The V.I. Superior Court, as a result of the fallout, already is looking at other vendors, according to Dunston, who said it was too hard to say yet when the court would strike another contract.

Until that time comes, the court will be using its former system, EnAct. The court must maintain all historical records in the event any are needed in a future case, according to Dunston.

Sen. Terrence Nelson suggested that, while the records may be existent, they are not truly available because they are stored in off-site storage facilities.

Most of the senators agreed that an electronic filing system would reduce the cost and inconvenience of storage, and would expedite the court proceedings.

Merging the courts

Senators pushed back when it came to the griping about too many costs and too few resources.

Many of the senators stated that the costs would be greatly reduced if the Superior Court, formerly known as the Territorial Court, merged with the V.I. Supreme Court.

Sen. Kenneth Gittens said that the courts are wasting precious taxpayer money by not combining, and Sen. Myron Jackson said that - sooner rather than later - philosophical differences need to be set aside so that the two entities could move forward.

Dunston said that he has had three occasions during which he has met with Supreme Court Chief Justice Rhys Hodge to discuss the matter, on which they agree on several points but cannot seem to agree on one very important issue: authority.

Dunston said Hodge believes that if the two courts combine, both courts ultimately should report to the chief justice, and Dunston said he believes that matters of the Superior Court should continue to be reported to the presiding judge, and matters of the court of appeals should be reported to the chief justice.

"It's a concern about concentration of enormous power within one position in the branch of our government," Dunston said, noting that there would be few to no checks and balances to ensure that the chief justice is acting judiciously.

Additionally, it would be difficult to rewind from such a decision to consolidate, and Dunston said he is uncertain that much money could be saved from the measure.

"That's been one of the things that's been ill-defined," Dunston said. "We question whether there would be savings at the level that the Supreme Court suggests."

GERS bills

One of the items that the court asked the Senate to help with was recent issues with the Government Employees Retirement System.

Dunston said the court recently has received a concentration of untimely bills from GERS that - unbeknownst to the court - were delaying retirement annuities for retirees up to six months.

"This is unacceptable and must be rectified, as it leaves our retirees with no income during this unconscionable period of time," he said.

The bills, received in June and July, were for outstanding prior service contributions that GERS claimed the court owed.

The bills were regarding employees who had retired in December 2013, though they may not have even worked at the court in recent years, according to Rabsatt Simmonds.

Rabsatt Simmonds said that she has been unable to verify the missing contribution claims that GERS is making because the records no longer are available at the court, and GERS will not provide its own records.

GERS gives the employer, in this case the court, only 30 days to pay, and requires that the employer pay a 1.5 percent delinquency fee and a 6 percent lost investment opportunity fee, even though GERS gave no prior notice of the missing employer contributions, Rabsatt Simmonds said.

The court also noted that the fees are unfair because, often, the reasons that the employers are penalized stem from errors on behalf of GERS made years ago.

Sen. Clarence Payne III expressed concern about the issue, and noted that perhaps it was time for GERS to be taken to court.

- Contact Jenny Kane at 714-9102 or email jkane@dailynews.vi.

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