By Daniel Wiessner
ALBANY, N.Y, Feb 6 (Reuters) - The New York court system's
proposed $1.75 billion budget will not restore cutbacks in court
hours and programs that have plagued the courts in recent years,
Chief Administrative Judge A. Gail Prudenti said on Wednesday.
Speaking to a panel of state lawmakers at a budget hearing
in Albany, Prudenti said the proposal would hold spending steady
while providing for raises for judges and union employees.
She said the damage caused by Superstorm Sandy spurred court
administrators to abandon plans to request a modest increase in
the budget. That money would have been used to restore court
hours and some programs, such as daycare centers in family
courts, that were cut as part of an austere 2011 budget.
"It now appears unlikely that our proposed budget will
enable us to support these advances," she said.
The judge's remarks came two months after the Office of
Court Administration submitted its fiscal year 2014 spending
plan to Governor Andrew Cuomo. Last month Cuomo backed the
proposals in his $136.4 billion executive budget, and state
lawmakers have until April 1 to adopt a final version.
New York state courts were hit with $170 million in cuts in
2011, forcing administrators to lay off hundreds of employees,
scale back a range of programs and close some courts a half hour
early. The court system's funding was held steady last year.
The current proposal would cut administrative costs by 6
percent to absorb increased spending in other areas, a step that
drew praise from legislators on Wednesday.
"I've been saying for 20 years that cuts should be directed
at administration rather than the people in the courtrooms who
are actually dispensing justice," Senator John DeFrancisco, a
Republican from Syracuse, said following Prudenti's testimony.
Prudenti said the court system has cut costs by automating
some tasks, such as attorney registration, monitoring overtime
and coordinating with other state agencies. Funds saved by
scaling back would be used to improve arrest-to-arraignment
times in New York City, she said.
She said the 2011 layoffs led to an increase in the number
of defendants arraigned more than 24 hours after their arrest, a
violation of state law.
CUTS TO FOSTER CARE
Several lawmakers on Wednesday expressed concerns about a
proposal to eliminate the court system's funding of the Court
Appointed Special Advocates, or CASA, program. Under CASA,
non-lawyer volunteers are assigned to children during foster
care proceedings to help them find services and advocate for
them in court.
"These children, if they don't get help at the inception,
won't make it in life," said Senator John Bonacic, a Republican
from Orange County.
Prudenti said she is meeting with nonprofit groups next week
and vowed to find ways to help them make up the proposed
$800,000 cut from the program.
During the hearing, Prudenti also took the opportunity to
push several legislative proposals, including one aimed to crack
down on mortgage lenders. She urged lawmakers to require lenders
to sign a certificate of merit and provide supporting documents
before filing a foreclosure action. Currently lenders can
commence such proceedings prior to submitting an affirmation of
merit, which Prudenti described as a "loophole" that harms
"Many homeowners are in legal limbo, their debt mounts, and
it becomes less likely that they're going to be able to
renegotiate their mortgages," she said.
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