The Kings County Superior Court will shutter the doors of courthouses in Avenal and Corcoran on December 18. Staff from the two locations will be reassigned to the Hanford Courthouse, and all court business will be conducted there after that date.
The closures, the result of years of funding shortfalls in the state budget, are the latest in a series of cost-saving measures undertaken by court administrators. Line staff at the courts has been reduced by 20%, administrative staff by 29%, and those remaining have been placed on furlough an average of 14 days per year, equivalent to a 5.3% cut in pay. The Lemoore Courthouse was closed in 2012, also a victim of budget cuts.
“We’re getting by now,” said Jeff Davis, court executive officer. “I would say we’re in a stasis position. We’ve very close to balancing the budget without furloughs.”
During the last six years, Kings County Superior Courts have seen a 30% reduction in its funding, and in 2012-13 it faced a $1.3 million deficit. Cost-saving measures by administrators have trimmed nearly $2.5 million in expenses. The austerity, Davis said, is statewide.
“All courts have felt the pain,” he said. “We’ve had our share. It hasn’t been easy.”
Closures Mean Minimal Disruption
While the closures are “not the path we want to take,” the impact is limited in scope, Davis said.
As it stands, felony cases and misdemeanor cases where the suspect is in custody are already heard in Hanford. Trials in Avenal are limited to traffic cases, minor infractions, out-of-custody misdemeanors and similar cases. Those are only heard one day every other week.
“We’re just losing two days a month in terms of court,” David said.
Other court business can also be conducted there.
Cases are more varied at the Corcoran Courthouse. Family support matters take up two days a week, one is taken up with pro per cases and one is given over to matters involving the prisons.
“Only on Friday did we have cases like those in Avenal,” Davis said.
Tight Finances Force Consolidation
While the timing of the closures was forced by financial necessity, operations at both locations would have eventually been folded into the new courthouse currently under construction in Hanford, Davis said.
“At some point we were going to consolidate,” he said.
The closures are needed now, Davis said, so the courts can continue to provide basic services on a daily basis. With the satellite locations closed, staff can be reassigned to Hanford “to offset critical personnel shortages.”
Those shortages, of course, are a result of the widespread staff reductions needed to close the budget gap, and have been mostly at the Hanford Courthouse.
“It’s borne the brunt of the layoffs,” Davis said.
Court Consolidation Has Benefits
Though their hand has been forced, the premature consolidation should actually be beneficial. The new courthouse, now under construction, is scheduled to open on February 16.
“When it does, we’ll have 10 courtrooms,” Davis said. “That’s the equivalent of what we’ve got now.”
By bringing all the court’s resources into a single location, its business should be streamlined, Davis hopes.
“We’ll be able to provide greater, more timely service,” he said.
The new courthouse also offers more modern security.
“It’s far more safe for the staff and public,” David said.
There’s also room to grow, with space available for two additional courtrooms to be constructed in the future.
An eighth judge was approved for Kings County in 2007, but the position has yet to be funded.
“There’s a lot of ways we could be more responsive if we had the personnel,” Davis said.
However, despite the current woes, the courts are prepared for a rosier future.
“We’ll be able to continue to grow into that building,” David said. “That’s down the road. It’s a facility that can grow with Kings County.”