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Court system assesses impact of retirements

Kristy O'Malley

There are a lot of vacant seats in offices within the New York State Unified Court System.

Some 1,556 employees — almost 10 percent of its workforce statewide — have accepted the state’s early retirement incentives announced in the spring.

The Seventh Judicial District has lost 58 of its 553 court personnel, also about 10 percent of its workforce, according to Michael R. Morrisey, principal administrative assistant.

He is filling some of the duties of Harry Salis, the long-time district executive for administration, who retired just before Thanksgiving. The district also lost its chief clerk, James L. Hendricks, another of several key positions.

Most of the retirements in the eight-county district are in Monroe County, which lost 44 employees — including two in the district offices and 12 in Rochester City Court.

Seventeen of the positions in Monroe County Court, family court and supreme court have been filled, one at a lower grade. Six, including the district executive position, are slated to be filled in 2011. Eight are vacant. Four of the Rochester City Court positions have been filled, two are to be filled in 2011 and the remaining six are vacant. There is also a county jury senior court office assistant position that was vacated and filled.

“We can’t fill them all,” Morrisey said. “We’re going to have to continue to absorb vacancies because of the current budget situation.”

Morrisey said the positions that are vacant are expected to remain so at this time. He noted the vacancies are in addition to a vacancy control program the district was operating under which limited it to filling 553 of its 567 positions.

According to Morrisey, there is a lot of internal movement as remaining employees transition into or apply for some of the newly vacated positions. Some received training from their retiring predecessors while Morrisey said a lot of people will be training on the job. He said there will also be time between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays to train new staff, many of whom are being hired off Civil Service lists.

Morrisey compared the situation to Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities,” paraphrasing its opening: “It’s the worst of times and it’s the best of times. The worst because we’re losing so much institutional knowledge. The flip side of that is it’s allowing opportunities to advance and making people re-think how we do business. I think in the long run, the upside will be we’ll have a lot of new people or people in new positions taking a new look at things and improving our efficiency.”

Morrisey said Ontario County lost its chief clerk in both its supreme and county courts, and family court. He said chief clerks in adjacent counties are helping out. Only Seneca County escaped losses due to the retirement incentive.

Twelve people retired from the Appellate Division, Fourth Department, including a number of key senior people who have worked with Presiding Justice Henry J. Scudder for a long time.

“It’s difficult when you have people with all that experience,” Judge Scudder said. “Even when you have people who can fill in, it’s not the same.”

He said the numbers here were about what was expected and that they are higher in some of the other appellate divisions.

“Luckily, we have people that have learned from the people that left so we’re not entirely up to speed, but we’re not limping along,” Judge Scudder said. “We’re doing better than that. I think this will all be OK after a year to two years when people gain the expertise that the people who left had. I don’t think it’s going to have any long-term negative effect.”

In late May, Gov. David A. Paterson announced passage of two incentive programs for eligible employees statewide that was expected to save $95 million this fiscal year, including $10 million in the court system.

“We will absolutely save $10 million,” said Judge Lawrence K. Marks, administrative director of the Office of Court Administration, noting the court system has been implementing various cost savings in the past two years.

One incentive program allowed employees ages 55-61 with at least 25 years of service to retire without a penalty reduction.

The other, which ended Nov. 24 and drew the most participants, was offered to employees who were at least 50 years old with 10 years of service. They could qualify for one month of additional pension credit for each year of service up to an additional three years, with penalties for those retiring before age 55.

The options were not available to judges or other elected officials, chambers’ staff or federally funded positions.

Judge Marks said the final tally of those taking the incentives was less than expected statewide. He said about 1,850 people filed a statement of participation, but some 300 changed their minds and decided to stay.

“This is still about 10 percent of our workforce,” Judge Marks said. “It’s still a very large number of people.”

He said the total workforce statewide is about 16,000. In the fifth and eighth judicial districts, which are also part of the Fourth Department, 48 and 100 people left, respectively. Judge Marks said 37 positions remain vacant in the Fifth Judicial District and 50 in the Eighth Judicial District.

He said about two-thirds of all vacancies are expected to be filled by the end of the fiscal year March 31 with priority given to key courtroom positions such as clerks, reporters, officers and security. The remaining positions will be evaluated.

“The key courtroom positions will be filled for the most part,” Judge Marks said. “We’re not filling some of the mid-level management positions and we’re not filling a lot of the administrative positions.”

A portion of the vacant positions in the fifth and eighth judicial districts are for court security. The Seventh Judicial District contracts security with local law enforcement agencies.

Judge Marks said the state graduated a class of about 40 court security officers in mid-November, following a 14-week program that began in August. He said they have been deployed upstate for about a month and the court system is evaluating whether to run another upstate class.

Judge Marks said each judicial district is making decisions on which positions to fill and which to leave vacant. He said the state will realize a full year of savings next year from the retirements and that even though two-thirds of the positions will be filled, it will be at a lower cost. He estimated the savings at about $20,000, including benefits, per new hire, compared to the retired person they will replace.

Judge Marks said court operations will not be impacted in any significant way, but will be carefully evaluated on a regular basis.

“The state has some very serious fiscal problems obviously and the court system budget is not immune from that,” he said. “We expect difficult budget times next year and for the immediate future, but this early retirement program does position us well for a difficult budget climate.”