One sure sign the Douglas County court system is in a funding crunch is that chief administrative judge Mike Malone is likely to answer his own phone.
Since his secretary of 17 years retired last month, a hiring freeze has prevented Malone from finding a replacement, he told county commissioners and a pair of state legislators at a Thursday meeting to discuss budget concerns.
"I'm probably the most overpaid, underqualified secretary in the state of Kansas," Malone said.
But doing his own typing isn't what really concerns Malone. The state budget cuts also have required the court clerk's office to slash its hours by a third. Consequently, cases are beginning to stack up.
"We have dodged two bullets already this year about whether we have met our constitutional responsibility to provide a speedy trail," Malone said. "I'm afraid we'll have more shot at us."
Malone is pessimistic about the future, in part, because last week he attended a "doom-and-gloom" meeting of the state's chief district court judges to discuss budget issues. At that meeting he learned the governor's recommended budget likely would cut $3.5 million out of the state's judicial budget, and would not include recommendations from the state Supreme Court to add a new magistrate judge and two other support workers to the Douglas County district.
If cuts are approved by the Legislature, they would follow a $2 million reduction the system is operating under. Those cuts have led to the reduced hours and the hiring freeze. Deeper budget cuts will only lead to more cuts in hours and possibly layoffs, Malone said.
County commissioners may not be in a position to soften the blow next year. During the last budget session, commissioners agreed to fund $150,000 in costs the state refused to pick up. They largely included the salary and support staff for a temporary judge.
But Thursday commissioners didn't give the judges much hope of help come budget time.
"We're going to be facing our own constraints this year," Commissioner Charles Jones said. "I don't think there is any appetite for raising the mill levy. I don't think there is any chance the county is going to come in and save the day."
State Reps. Barbara Ballard and Troy Findley, both D-Lawrence, told the group the best chance to solve the funding crunch is for county commissioners to begin forming alliances with other large counties that face similar problems.
They also recommended lobbying for a change in the law that requires at least one judge per county.