06/18/09 — Proposed cuts worried law enforcement

View Archive

Proposed cuts worried law enforcement

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on June 18, 2009 1:46 PM

Members of the local court system fretted heavily before the state House put forth its version of the state budget bill -- some initial cuts could have forced Wayne County to build a $60 million jail far sooner than anticipated.

Nearly every local court office said the original version of the House budget bill would have produced devastating changes.

But as the budget currently stands -- and although it is still subject to change -- most of the original cuts are no longer "in controversy," meaning the agencies will probably be spared the worst of the cuts this year.

However, although most of the budget items called the most drastic by local leaders were changed or removed, many other changes are imminent as the state looks to pare its $4.6-billion deficit.

Sheriff's Office

Before the House came up with its version, Wayne County Sheriff Carey Winders prepped county commissioners for potential cuts.

Most pressing for Winders and Superior Court Judge Arnold Jones was a proposal to keep prisoners up to six months in local jails.

Currently, only people who are sentenced up to 90 days are kept in the county jail.

That could have meant the cost of keeping prisoners for stays up to six months would have fallen on the county. Complicating matters further, the state had also proposed eliminating an $18 subsidy it pays to counties to keep prisoners in local jails.

Both provisions have since been removed from both the House and Senate versions of the state budget bill.

But before it was removed, Jones was concerned over what the effect it would have on the county.

"If this legislation passes, I'm really worried about our jail population," Jones said, just hours before meeting with legislators to discuss the change. "We're in a situation where potentially within a year, we're going to need a new jail."

However, all of the concerns of the N.C. Sheriff's Association were alleviated in the final version of the House budget, the association's vice president said. Eddie Caldwell, an attorney who also serves as the Sheriff's Association's lone lobbyist in Raleigh, also said two other major changes were made, among others.

First, annual fees for mandatory law enforcement training were eliminated. "In-service" training would have required a $250 fee this year for training, and $100 fees every year afterward. The provision was removed, Caldwell said.

The Guilford County State Bureau of Investigation lab stays open. The first version of the House budget would have closed this facility, potentially creating a backlog of evidence for court cases. Caldwell said he was pleased with the result.

"Everything that we were concerned about has been fixed, things that would have been adverse to law enforcement," Caldwell said.

District Attorney

District Attorney Branny Vickory said the original House proposal would have cut out 38 percent of his staff. That would have left lawyers doing the work of legal assistants, the district attorney said.

But the changes had been headed off by early last week, Vickory said.

The potential cuts were an overall reduction of 155 victim witness legal assistants, who help coordinate cases by getting witnesses and victims to court, Vickory said.

"These victim witness positions are ones that do a lot of the legwork -- they help us coordinate," Vickory said. "But they also do a lot of other things that the law requires us to do, like assist with getting discovery."

Had the changes been made, Vickory had already examined some of the things he would have had to do within Greene, Lenoir and Wayne counties.

"I would have had to shut down courts ... and take lawyers out of courts, and put them into these areas that other people are doing, because we're required by law to meet these other needs," Vickory said.

But after meeting with Reps. Van Braxton, Efton Sager and Larry Bell, the changes were made, Vickory said.

"They were all very, very helpful in keeping what we have," Vickory said.

However, other cuts will still likely be made. The total cuts to the court system are about $39.3 million, or about 8 percent of the approximately $500 million the state court system originally expected. Four special Superior Court judgeships will be eliminated by the end of the year. Also, nearly $4 million in telephone lines throughout the state judicial system will be eliminated. The number of dispute resolutions centers will also be cut, as the state has planned about $400,000 in cuts to that program.

Clerk of Court

Wayne County Clerk of Court Pam Minshew had wondered if the state would really slash 10 percent of court clerk jobs across the state.

As the House budget stands, the plans are now to cut 47 "vacant or occupied" positions, accounting for about $2 million.

Vacant positions exist because a hiring freeze has been in place for the court clerks' offices, meaning people who retired or otherwise stopped working for the court were not replaced, Mrs. Minshew said.

Minshew said that all of her court clerks stay continually busy, and she said she was not sure how the work would get done if cuts were too drastic.

"It's like 4 million cases that we handle each year, across the state of North Carolina," Mrs. Minshew said. "If it goes through the legal system, it ends up in our office one way or another."

In the Wayne County clerks' office, there have been no recent retirees, so there are no "vacant" positions to eliminate, she said.

But she wondered how the 47 eliminated jobs would pan out for the state's legal system.

"I'm just praying they won't cut them," Mrs. Minshew said. "It'd be bad. We'll do what we have to do and pray that we don't lose any positions."