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Cuts make courts look for savings

In this file photo, Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau testifies at joint legislative budget hearing in Albany. New York State Senate Photography

ALBANY — New York court administrators are looking for spending cuts in everything from jury pools to overnight arraignments before resorting to more layoffs to reach the $70 million budget cut imposed by the governor and lawmakers.

Besides a hiring freeze and 74 layoffs already in the Office of Court Administration, judges have been told to generally halt proceedings by 4:30 p.m., helping slash what was a $37 million overtime budget.

“We spend a lot of money on overtime,” Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau said. In New York City, Small Claims Court is reducing evening sessions to one a week and criminal courts are trying to limit overnight and weekend arraignment hours, which also require overtime, she said.

Courts will call fewer potential jurors, who get paid $40 a day, trying to curb what’s known as “overcalls.” Judges are being asked not to sequester jurors for lunch, which otherwise means overtime for the court officer assigned to watch them. Officials are also renegotiating contracts to cut prices and buy fewer legal reference books, which was budgeted for $25 million.

“It all adds up,” Pfau said.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said any further layoffs will probably happen this month, early in the fiscal year. About 95 percent of the judiciary’s $2.7 billion budget is for people, he said.

“We are going to keep the courts of this state open and accessible to everybody in this state despite the cuts,” Lippman said after his Law Day address earlier this week. “Look, it’s tough. The bottom line is we’re going to have delays in justice.”

Lippman said he didn’t know how many layoffs would come and said they are talking to unions to see if there are other steps they can take jointly.

“We’ve had estimates that have been out there, you know, as many as 400, or maybe even a little more in terms of layoffs,” he said. “But we’re trying to save every dollar that we can short of that.”

Contracts with the 13 unions that represent most of the 15,000 court employees expired March 31 and collective bargaining is ongoing, Pfau said. With early retirements, the court system recently lost more than 1,000 people, has vacancies that aren’t being filled, and it’s difficult to know how much more attrition to expect, she said.