Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock.com
The Unified Court System in New York is asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature to approve a nearly $45 million, or 2 percent, budget increase over last year’s spending plan for the state’s courts to combat court backlogs and finance staffing and salary increases in the judiciary.
The increase would bring the total spending by the court system to $2.28 billion for state operations in the next fiscal year, which begins in April. The judiciary is also seeking $24 million in capital appropriations, or infrastructure spending, for technology, security and records management.
“The 2 percent is a modest increase, but we are trying to strike the right balance between what we believe we need in terms of resources to achieve our goals and our responsibility to be as prudent and vigilant as we can in spending the public’s money,” Marks said. “So, we believe a 2 percent increase will allow us to continue to make the progress that we’ve been making over the last several years in addressing backlogs and delays.”
The court system’s budget, as is required by law, was not modified by Cuomo’s office before it was included in his proposed spending plan for the state Tuesday. It will now be reviewed—along with the rest of the state budget—over the next two months by Cuomo and state lawmakers as they negotiate a final spending plan, which is due at the end of March.
Much of the proposed budget is spending to continue the court system’s initiatives from previous years, including Chief Judge DiFiore’s Excellence Initiative. That effort began in 2016 to reduce the consistent issue of case backlogs in state courts. Aside from technological improvements, much of the progress in improving court efficiency over the last three years has been attributable to court employees, whose salaries and benefits make up the majority of the judiciary’s budget.
“Well over 90 percent of our budget is personnel costs,” Marks said. “The courthouses themselves are owned and maintained under the law by local governments, county governments, city governments, and the New York City government. That’s a major expense and that’s not part of our budget.”
That’s reflected in this year's budget proposal, which spends the vast majority of state funds on personal service. That’s funding for the salaries and benefits of both judges and nonjudicial employees within the court system.
The personal service cost at the state’s lowest courts alone was nearly $1.5 billion last year, or about two-thirds of the court system’s total state operating funds. That money goes to the State Supreme Court, county courts, family courts, city and district courts, local courts, Court of Claims and other non-appellate courts within New York.
The proposed budget would increase the cost of personal service for those courts by $57.3 million to a total of $1.55 billion in the next fiscal year. The increase was requested for a few reasons, but the largest share can be traced to pay hikes negotiated with public labor unions and salary increases mandated by the state judicial compensation commission.
“We have labor contracts with all 12 of our unions, and they call for 2 percent increases,” Marks said. “A very substantial portion of the overall 2 percent increase we’re seeking in our budget will go to pay for contractually negotiated salary increases for our employees.”
There are several sections of the budget that seek an increase higher than 2 percent, according to the documents, but Marks said those increases are largely offset by turnover within the court system. When a longtime employee retires, for example, they can be replaced by an individual with a lower salary.
“When we have hundreds of employees who retire or leave their jobs in the court system for whatever reason, almost always, when we replace them it’s someone who will come in at a lower salary,” Marks said. “We will also delay the filling of a vacancy when someone leaves ... and that produces savings.”
The budget would also allocate money for additional employees within the state court system, like more court reporters and court officers. A new class of more than 200 court officers will start at the state’s new training academy in Brooklyn next month, which means they will be ready to work in the state’s courts later this year. Marks said the budget proposal includes funding for those officers to enter the system.
A budget increase was also requested for the Court of Appeals and the state’s other appellate courts, much of which would be grounded in personal costs for the same reasons.
The $24 million requested for capital appropriations would be used for automation, security and records management, according to the proposal. That includes modernizing the judiciary’s computer network, providing technology to judges and staff, enhancing security equipment at courts, and converting paper records into a digital format.
There’s at least one part of this year’s proposed state budget that attorneys are not happy about, but it wasn’t included in the court system’s spending plan. Cuomo, on Tuesday, proposed an increase in the Attorney Registration Fee from $375 to $425 to help support the state’s Indigent Legal Services Fund, which pays for constitutionally mandated criminal legal defense for low-income defendants.
New York State Bar Association president Michael Miller said his organization recognizes the importance of the funding, but argued that the state should chip in more money from its own coffers rather than raise fees on lawyers.
“The New York State Bar Association strongly objects to this proposed increase, which is in effect a targeted tax on attorneys,” Miller said. “Our 70,000 members know that providing indigent criminal defense is a constitutional mandate. It is a state obligation and a societal responsibility, and should be paid for from the general fund and not by a additional tax or surcharge on lawyers."
The Office of Court Administration collects the fee, but it’s then referred to the Executive Department, according to Marks. He said the court system’s budget had nothing to do with the proposed increase.
The Legislature is set to hear from Marks and other stakeholders during a state budget hearing Jan. 29 in Albany.
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Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Mark Reinstein/Shutterstock.com