ILNews

Money woes 'going to get worse'

Michael W. Hoskins
November 26, 2008
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Economic Impact

Hammond City Judge Jeffrey Harkin represents what might signify a growing trend as the Indiana legal community copes with budget crunches and a turbulent economy.

Sitting on what he describes as the busiest and most efficient city court in Indiana, Judge Harkin is suing the Hammond City Council for slashing the court's 2009 budget by more than 10 percent, which translates to the loss of five employees.

The judge doesn't find it acceptable and thinks the cut is outside the city council's authority.

"Basically, this cut renders the court unable to maintain its efficiency," said the judge's attorney, David Weigle of Hammond. "There's a penchant for local politicians to be fiscally responsible budget cutters, but there's a broader question here of responsible budget cutting. This all seems to be politicians pandering to the residents about cutting budgets but not willing to accept the consequences of that."

HarkinJudge Harkin's lawsuit filed Oct. 24 symbolizes the tension being seen throughout Indiana as local officials are crunching numbers and trying to figure out how to best balance budgets for the coming year, a practice that's putting the legal community in the crosshairs.

It's a guessing game for many, as some budgets aren't yet certified by the state and the full impact of sweeping property tax reform won't even be known until sometime next year. Lawsuits are being filed or threatened, officials are warring with those in the justice system who say they can't perform essential duties without adequate resources, and county courts, prosecutors, and public defenders are being forced to deal with dire funding issues for 2009 while dreading what could be an even worse situation the following year

"We cut what we needed to, but my real concern is for the year beginning in 2010," said Allen County Prosecutor Karen Richards, who cut $195,000 from her $6 million budget as all departments were ordered. "We are just able to work within these budget constraints now, but another year will be incredibly more difficult. If the economy doesn't turn around.... It's only going to get worse."

What looms is a dark cloud in a mammoth storm slamming the nation, the result of an economic crisis engulfing both the public and private sectors. While law firms scrutinize bottom lines and determine what impact economic woes will have on their practices, local governments are being forced to deal with the combination of sweeping property-tax reforms, decreasing revenue, rising costs, and overall anxiety about when the economy might rebound.

RichardsThe picture isn't good for Indiana, which faces a bleak forecast as lawmakers prepare for a long session to tackle the state's two-year budget. Economic forecasts are calling for the state to be about $600 million off its expected revenue mark, and that means legislators will have to address not only that significant shortfall but also broader, change-based issues in how government is run from top to bottom.

Counties and local governments have until Dec. 1 to submit their approved budgets to the Indiana Department of Local Government Finance. The state agency must then certify the budgets by mid-February, and tax rates won't likely be known until mid-2009. Simultaneously, local governments are nervous about what H.E.A. 1001 will mean because it takes away a significant chunk of property tax that's traditionally served as a revenue-generator.

"We're in a pinch," said Larry Landis, executive director of the Indiana Public Defender's Council. "Everyone understood when this property tax reform was passed the full effect would be a year or two down the road. It's coming closer, and we're all going to feel it if something doesn't change."

Most public defenders are being told to expect 3 to 8 percent cuts for 2009, and the number is similar or higher for the following years, Landis said. That creates a problem for many that often operate underfunded offices with excessive caseloads but are required to meet standards to receive funding reimbursement from the state. Courts and prosecutors see the same issues when dealing with crime that tends to rise during tougher economic times.

"Crime doesn't go down because there's a recession; it instead has an inverse correlation, and it's difficult to do more with less resources," he said.

Statewide, judges and lawyers are doing what they can to make ends meet in this time of uncertainty.

ZareTo meet a 20 percent budget reduction this year by city officials in Gary, City Judge Deidre Monroe in September gave up money she'd set aside to repair two dozen courtroom seats that are broken and unusable. Instead of using that money from 2007, the judge decided to help meet a $100,000 shortfall in the city's budget.

But that only does part of the job. Judge Monroe also may need to cut some of her 60 staff positions, and that could mean discontinuing at least one of the 10 court calls scheduled every week.

Marion County Public Defender Bob Hill said he's leaving several positions unfilled but doesn't have to lay anyone off. It's the same scenario on the court side, according to Marion Superior Judge Gerald Zore and Court Administrator Glenn Lawrence.

The court's $57 million budget didn't get cut, and it was able to get some additional funding for state-mandated pay increases, a new civil court opening in January, and some more juvenile medical expenses, Lawrence said. The courts asked for additional money for staff but didn't receive it, and the court is now looking at more video conferencing and technology resources to try and save money, as well as not filling any vacant positions, he said.

Hill encouraged the courts to start collecting more fees from public defense cases, which could mean almost twice as much revenue from the $160,000 collected in 2007. While the office has trimmed expenses through attrition Hill is already evaluating what can and can't be cut during next year's budget process.

"We're at a point where we can't cut anything more out of the budget," he said. "There're no fray expenses; we're doing what we can without having to cut services, which would mean we could run afoul of the public defender standards and that has serious implications."

In Vanderburgh County, officials say it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

Public Defender Stephen Owens said his $1.7 million budget showed no growth for 2009, with a slight reduction but pretty close to what it was for this year. He hasn't had any reductions in lawyers like others in the state that have seen 3 to 20 percent cuts for departments.

"Every county is in some sort of economic downturn, and that's certainly being seen this year," he said. "We're kind of better off, but not nearly as well off as we'd like to be. But the serious reductions might come next year; that's when we may really see the full force of this crunch."

LandisThe notion of working together on budget cuts isn't something everyone is taking to heart. Judges have filed multiple funding suits through the years, but some observe the current crisis could increase that amount. The issue also recently has surfaced in Steuben and St. Joseph counties, among others.

Judge Harkin's suit seeks a permanent injunction against the city from cutting his budget from $853,459 to $728,480 and asks the court to mandate the council appropriate sufficient funds. He'd requested an $813,779 budget for 2009.

"We think the law is pretty clear that as long as the budget isn't extravagant, which it's not, they don't have the authority to cut it," his attorney Weigle said.

The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled on the issue of judicial mandates and said trial judges and county officials must work together, as both share the responsibility of setting court budgets. The Commission on Courts earlier this year didn't reach any decision on mandates but said one possible way to resolve some of these issues could be in statewide reform of county court funding.

That idea is gaining steam in Indiana, with many pushing for restructuring that could free up county money and shift that funding responsibility to the state.

A catalyst for that realistically happening during an upcoming legislative session could be local government reform work done in the past year. Those types of reforms came in a report released late last year by a committee co-chaired by former Gov. Joe Kernan and Indiana Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard. The report suggested a flurry of government reforms, such as sweeping property tax reform that's already happening and eliminating township government offices. It also included recommendations for a possible a shift in funding from counties to the state for public defense, county courts, and probation.

"This time is difficult for local governments, especially for criminal justice agencies that are reacting to what happens in society," Landis said. "County government has to provide the funding or we can't do our jobs, unless the state decides to pick up some of the costs. This is a part of the Kernan-Shepard report, and my message would be that this is a good

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  1. From back in the day before secularism got a stranglehold on Hoosier jurists comes this great excerpt via Indiana federal court judge Allan Sharp, dedicated to those many Indiana government attorneys (with whom I have dealt) who count the law as a mere tool, an optional tool that is not to be used when political correctness compels a more acceptable result than merely following the path that the law directs: ALLEN SHARP, District Judge. I. In a scene following a visit by Henry VIII to the home of Sir Thomas More, playwriter Robert Bolt puts the following words into the mouths of his characters: Margaret: Father, that man's bad. MORE: There is no law against that. ROPER: There is! God's law! MORE: Then God can arrest him. ROPER: Sophistication upon sophistication! MORE: No, sheer simplicity. The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. ROPER: Then you set man's law above God's! MORE: No, far below; but let me draw your attention to a fact I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain sailing, I can't navigate. I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of law, oh, there I'm a forester. I doubt if there's a man alive who could follow me there, thank God... ALICE: (Exasperated, pointing after Rich) While you talk, he's gone! MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law! ROPER: So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law! MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ROPER: I'd cut down every law in England to do that! MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on Roper) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you where would you hide, Roper, the laws being flat? (He leaves *1257 him) This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast man's laws, not God's and if you cut them down and you're just the man to do it d'you really think you would stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. ROPER: I have long suspected this; this is the golden calf; the law's your god. MORE: (Wearily) Oh, Roper, you're a fool, God's my god... (Rather bitterly) But I find him rather too (Very bitterly) subtle... I don't know where he is nor what he wants. ROPER: My God wants service, to the end and unremitting; nothing else! MORE: (Dryly) Are you sure that's God! He sounds like Moloch. But indeed it may be God And whoever hunts for me, Roper, God or Devil, will find me hiding in the thickets of the law! And I'll hide my daughter with me! Not hoist her up the mainmast of your seagoing principles! They put about too nimbly! (Exit More. They all look after him). Pgs. 65-67, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS A Play in Two Acts, Robert Bolt, Random House, New York, 1960. Linley E. Pearson, Atty. Gen. of Indiana, Indianapolis, for defendants. Childs v. Duckworth, 509 F. Supp. 1254, 1256 (N.D. Ind. 1981) aff'd, 705 F.2d 915 (7th Cir. 1983)

  2. "Meanwhile small- and mid-size firms are getting squeezed and likely will not survive unless they become a boutique firm." I've been a business attorney in small, and now mid-size firm for over 30 years, and for over 30 years legal consultants have been preaching this exact same mantra of impending doom for small and mid-sized firms -- verbatim. This claim apparently helps them gin up merger opportunities from smaller firms who become convinced that they need to become larger overnight. The claim that large corporations are interested in cost-saving and efficiency has likewise been preached for decades, and is likewise bunk. If large corporations had any real interest in saving money they wouldn't use large law firms whose rates are substantially higher than those of high-quality mid-sized firms.

  3. The family is the foundation of all human government. That is the Grand Design. Modern governments throw off this Design and make bureaucratic war against the family, as does Hollywood and cultural elitists such as third wave feminists. Since WWII we have been on a ship of fools that way, with both the elite and government and their social engineering hacks relentlessly attacking the very foundation of social order. And their success? See it in the streets of Fergusson, on the food stamp doles (mostly broken families)and in the above article. Reject the Grand Design for true social function, enter the Glorious State to manage social dysfunction. Our Brave New World will be a prison camp, and we will welcome it as the only way to manage given the anarchy without it.

  4. When I hear 'Juvenile Lawyer' I think of an attorney helping a high school aged kid through the court system for a poor decision; like smashing mailboxes. Thank you for opening up my eyes to the bigger picture of the need for juvenile attorneys. It made me sad, but also fascinated, when it was explained, in the sixth paragraph, that parents making poor decisions (such as drug abuse) can cause situations where children need legal representation and aid from a lawyer.

  5. Some in the Hoosier legal elite consider this prayer recommended by the AG seditious, not to mention the Saint who pledged loyalty to God over King and went to the axe for so doing: "Thomas More, counselor of law and statesman of integrity, merry martyr and most human of saints: Pray that, for the glory of God and in the pursuit of His justice, I may be trustworthy with confidences, keen in study, accurate in analysis, correct in conclusion, able in argument, loyal to clients, honest with all, courteous to adversaries, ever attentive to conscience. Sit with me at my desk and listen with me to my clients' tales. Read with me in my library and stand always beside me so that today I shall not, to win a point, lose my soul. Pray that my family may find in me what yours found in you: friendship and courage, cheerfulness and charity, diligence in duties, counsel in adversity, patience in pain—their good servant, and God's first. Amen."

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