Court closures expected to hurt rural communities

Jul 13, 2012

California’s budget problems have put a strain on all state departments - including local county courts. Valley Public Radio's Gabriela Ornelas tells us how Fresno County residents may find getting to a courtroom much more difficult in the coming weeks.

Fresno County covers nearly 6,000 square miles, from the mountains of the high Sierra to the rolling hills around Coalinga. For years, residents in the small rural communities of the county have come to rely on local branches of the Fresno County Superior Court to handle everything from traffic tickets to small trials. But a few weeks ago, the Court announced it will close all seven branch courts that are outside of the City of Fresno, thanks to steep budget cuts from the state. The move has both residents and judges like Gary Hoff concerned.

“We never wanted to leave those communities, we never planned on leaving those communities. We know our presence in those communities helps businesses there, helps people to accommodate their contacts with the court, it's more timely and more cost-efficient way for them. Unfortunately, we just don't have the resources to do that anymore.”

The Fresno Superior Court must absorb more than $26 million in cuts in the upcoming fiscal year which begins July 1st. Consolidating operations of the branch courts is estimated to save around 480 thousand dollars, while also saving the state more than 400 thousand in state facility funding and one million in security funds.

Residents in communities like Coalinga, Firebaugh, Reedley, Sanger, Selma, Clovis, and Kingsburg will have to make the drive to downtown Fresno in order tend to their judicial issues once their local courthouses close. As City Manager of Coalinga, Darrel Pyle, explains, the consolidation will become a hassle, more than an efficient cost-saving measure. 

“After time passes and they evaluate the impact of closing the courts, they will not have saved as much money as they anticipated and they will create more problems than they solved. Demands on public transportation are going to increase, and caseloads are going to pile up on those judge's desks. They're going to have to come up with a solution to solve those problems,” said Pyle. 

For Coalinga residents, that means an hour and a half drive to the County Courthouse in Downtown Fresno – both ways. Even County Supervisors are upset over the closure. The board voted this Tuesday to send a letter of protest to the court over the matter. Supervisor Judy Case, who represents communities from Reedley to Coalinga, says the issue is of great concern to her district.

“While it may seem efficient to close courts if you live in Fresno, for those living in the outlying areas, it’s going to hurt our most vulnerable who aren’t able to get to the court system. For one the public transportation system is not really geared to get people to court and get them back if you have to travel two hours across the county,” said Supervisor Case.

However, court officials say that residents will have other options. People have been able to pay for traffic tickets online and contest traffic citations by mail for some time now, but Judge Hoff says the court system is looking for more ways to use technology to save money, and provide convenience for residents in rural communities, who will be hurt most by the consolidation. 

“Right now, we're looking at ways of using technology, such as maybe video or conference trials in traffic. We would have to get probably a grant. First, we'd have to get legal approval to do it. But we would also need to have money to have a system set up,” said Judge Hoff.

While the increased use of technology could be helpful to citizens, Coalinga Mayor Ron Ramsey doesn't believe it's a solution to the problems the consolidation will bring to city residents.

“I think they should have done that before they started closing everything. I think you should have a plan in tact before you actually cut something before you know what's happening because you don't know what the cuts are going to do to you,” said Ramsey.

Judge Hoff says while it might be possible to reopen the branch courts if the financial situation were to change in the future, the present budget crisis makes it unlikely. Even with the consolidation, the Fresno Superior Court will still face a $5.4 million budget shortfall. 

“As for now, I don't see the budget picture changing to the point where that's likely. We're looking at this year's budget picture, which is drastic, and I anticipate that next year it's going to be worse.”

Financial pressures are facing not only the Fresno Superior Court, but are typical of the court systems in all California counties. As funding comes out of the state budget, the financial crisis is out of the Court's control, and they will continue to be subject to budget pressures from Sacramento. Judge Hoff says that the issues with funding are affecting the operations of the judicial branch, which he fears will lead the public to lose faith in their system. But he doesn't see the situation changing any time soon. 

“Hopefully the justice department is on board with us and will be able to staff the courts the way we are configuring them. We think they are. And we'll just see how we're able to operate, and we may have to make further changes. But I don't think this is the last of the cuts,” said Hoff.

The Coalinga Courthouse is scheduled to close July 30th, along with courthouses in Firebaugh, Reedley, Sanger and Selma. The courthouses in Clovis and Kingsburg will close August 6th.