Gloucester's District Court may soon have a short-term reprieve, but isn't out of the woods regarding its long-term future.
The state's House of Representatives Wednesday approved allocating $20 million to support the State's trial court system as part of a $154 million supplementary budget, with a $350 million addition to the state's reserve fund as well.
The additional funds are designed to stem several court closures due to Trial Court budget cuts provided the Senate approves the budget package, and the Trial Court system has plans to "relocate" Gloucester's District Court staff and services to a newly-expanded facility in Salem.
The supplementary package approved Wednesday includes $12 million in additional funding and $8 million in retained revenues, said Rep. Ann-Margaret Ferrante.
Kathleen "Toody" Healy, Ferrante's legislative aide, said the legislation also contains an amendment that would prevent the Trial Court's Administrative Chief Justice, Robert Mulligan, from closing or proposing closure of any courts without approval from a civil administrator.
But that money, said Ferrante, doesn't guarantee the future of the Gloucester District Court.
"It keeps the court open until the civil administration comes in and reviews the situation," she said.
Healy said the measure only covers the budget for the current fiscal year, which runs through next June 30. The additional funding, she said, provides the state time to review its Trial Court system before making further changes.
If the state wants to close a court, the bill would require specific reasons for closing it and a recognition of any ripples the closure might cause. The civil administrator's position has come out of the Legislature's court reform bill, said Ferrante.
Ferrante said she supported the supplementary package and money for the trial court. She said the court has demonstrated a need for additional funding within the current system. The money, Ferrante added, also provides time for a fiscal analysis of the Trial Court system.
The Trial Court, according to an Aug. 10 report to the Legislature on the court closings, had indicated its appropriation for fiscal 2012 had come in $24 million under fiscal 2011, with $519.9 million appropriated for trial courts this year. In the report, Trial Court officials also stated they had slashed 1,141 positions since 2007, and has operated under a hiring freeze since 2008.
"Staff reductions ... have created major shortfalls and have left more than 60 per cent of court divisions well below recommended staffing levels," the report states.
The Gloucester District Court has what the Trial Court classified as an "adequate" staffing level of 22 — while many courthouses are listed at levels "below adequate." Yet Gloucester has the 59th highest criminal caseload out of 62 courts used for criminal cases, with just 869 cases in fiscal 2010. And the Gloucester court ranked 53rd out of the 62 in civil case filings at 1,714.
By comparison, the Salem courthouse ranks 18th in criminal defendants, with 3,711 in fiscal 2010, and 14th in civil filings, at 6,220. Currently, the Salem court covers Beverly, Danvers, Manchester, Middleton, and Salem.
The Trial Court, according to the report, implemented court relocations to consolidate staff, and cut expenses in leases, among other costs. The relocations will save about $3.4 million, according to Mulligan.
Twelve courts, including Gloucester's face closure and relocation this year. But the Trial Court, Mayor Carolyn Kirk has noted, doesn't pay anything for its home on Main Street above the city's Police Department.
The court has a 100-year, rent-free lease in the space above the police department, while the state pays roughly $20,000 in utility costs for the building annually — one third of the building's utility cost.
The state also paid $22,000 in cleaning costs last year.
But Kirk also offered last year to pick up all court expenses, totaling about $42,000 in cleaning, utility, and prisoner food costs.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.