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November 25, 2014

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County grumbles but OK’s $3.2 million court overruns

Beyond the Sun

Clark County bailed out the judiciary this week after learning that District Court officials had overshot their annual budget by $3.2 million.

Court officials defended the spending before county commissioners, who grudgingly approved the additional money Tuesday.

The scene highlighted the tension that often surfaces between the bench and Clark County. That tension stems from the fact that the county funds most of the court’s costs, but independently elected judges determine how the money is spent. In recent months, the tension has grown more visible as the county deals with tighter finances due to falling sales tax revenue.

Most of the court’s overruns — more than $2.2 million — stemmed from spending on court-appointed attorneys for the poor. Those costs are due in part to reforms to the contract attorney system, including a pay increase for those attorneys, that commissioners approved last year.

Other expenses, however, drew scrutiny from commissioners. Spending on interpreters, court reporters, contracted security guards and other items also are expected to exceed what was budgeted for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

Court Administrator Chuck Short defended that spending before skeptical commissioners.

Requests for interpreters have shot up dramatically in District Court, while funding from the county for interpreters has remained flat, resulting in overruns of $300,000, he said.

Another $170,000 in overruns stemmed from a new, more expensive contract for courthouse security guards, Short said.

And an increase in the number and complexity of murder cases — including that of Darren Mack, the Reno man sentenced for killing his wife and shooting a Washoe County judge — led to greater-than-budgeted spending on court reporters, Short said.

That’s because defense attorneys and prosecutors often ask court reporters to provide next-day transcripts of court proceedings during murder trials. Those services cost more than normal transcript processing and contributed to $157,000 in overruns, he said.

“If you can predict the amount of crime next year, if you can predict the severity of crime next year, if you can predict what the prosecution will do on those cases — then we can predict that account more reliably,” Short said.

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani questioned that explanation, asking whether state law mandated next-day transcripts.

Short replied that it doesn’t, but added that judges usually grant such requests in murder cases to ensure a fair trial for the defense and prosecutors.

“Maybe that’s something you could take a look at,” Giunchigliani said.

The exchange illustrates the competing interests of the judiciary and the county: Commissioners watch the financial bottom line while judges focus on ensuring that justice is served.

“You don’t want to try to do murder on the cheap,” Short said after the meeting.

He also noted that during last year’s budget process, court officials requested additional money for indigent defense and court reporters, but the county funded those items at lower levels. The court system, though, must provide constitutionally mandated services such as indigent defense and interpreters, he said.

In the end, commissioners approved the additional money — which will come from unanticipated savings in other county departments — but only after emphasizing that court officials need to keep the county better informed about evolving financial issues.

The meeting was only the most recent example of commissioners scrutinizing the judiciary’s spending. In October, judges wanted $14.7 million to renovate county courthouses to make room for six new district judges who will take the bench in 2009.

Commissioners delayed a vote on the issue and told the judges to look into alternative ways to house new judges, such as night or weekend court. Court officials came back in January with a revised plan that cost $2 million less.

Chief District Judge Kathy Hardcastle said the county’s recent scrutiny is not unusual.

“There is necessary conflict there between the two branches of government,” she said. “But I think it is beneficial for everyone.”

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