The Nevada Legislature mandated expansion of the court in 2009 after a workforce study concluded that an additional four judges were likely needed to handle new caseloads, and renovations last summer created Department 15, with Judge David Hardy presiding.
Though an increase in the number of civil cases largely defined the court’s necessity, Hardy said the criminal caseload had not grown. Instead, these cases will be spread out between nine departments from a previous eight.
And herein lies the contention.
“Washoe County officials have a shared understanding with the county’s district attorney, public defender and sheriff that the new Department 15 District Court mandated by the 2009 Nevada Legislature would only handle civil cases,” John Berkich, assistant county manager, said in a statement.
But at a later date all parties were informed the court would also hear criminal cases. This change made it necessary to assign district attorneys and public defenders to the court, which they have done, but at no small cost.
Meanwhile, the sheriff’s office has assigned a bailiff to the court, which is required by Nevada law for both civil and criminal hearings.
Though staffing the additional district attorney and public defender positions is riddled with funding shortfalls, the sheriff’s office is able to support the new bailiff post with court security fees, at a cost of $90,000 annually. However, Undersheriff Todd Vinger hopes that formal approval of the new bailiff’s post by the county board of commissioners will result in a more stable funding source.
“We would like it to go into the general fund,” he said.
But given the severe budget deficits facing the county, officials said it is unlikely this will happen.
“I can tell you that it’s going to be ugly,” county spokesperson Kathy Carter said of impending budget cuts, “and I can tell you that it is going to be significant.”
Hard numbers will be revealed at the Washoe County Commission meeting scheduled Jan. 25, but a review of the past provides some precedent for the future.
More than $120 million have been cut from the county budget in the last four years alone, while 700 jobs have been slashed and workers have seen reduced wages and higher health care premiums. And with forecasted declines in both property and sales tax revenues, the county is scrambling to find money to support staffing district attorneys and public defenders for the new court.
Fiscal proposals recommending the addition of two new district attorneys and a legal secretary have been submitted to the board of county commissioners, but no approval has yet been given for the $340,000 annual funding increase needed to support these positions.
“I hope we get out of this jam as far as finances are concerned,” District Attorney Dick Gammick said. Until then, he added, “We have a commitment to the community and we intend to meet it.”
Doing so means reorganizing the criminal prosecution division to meet the expanding staffing requirements, Gammick said, which, for example, comes at the expense of the victim-witness assistance program.
The Public Defender’s Office also has requested $340,000 in annual funding to staff the new court with two attorneys and a legal secretary.
In the meantime, some attorneys are pulling “double-duty,” said Jeremy Bosler, chief public defender. The misdemeanor caseload is suffering as a result.
“We will do our best until we can get some relief,” Bosler said.
The sheriff’s office also has felt the pinch.
“We’re short a position,” Vinger said.
The bailiff was removed from the sheriff’s office detention department and will serve a four-year assignment for the purposes of “consistency and continuity,” Vinger said.
Furthermore, shuffling officers to fill the detention department void requires overtime pay and Vinger said it could take up to one year to recruit, hire and train an officer to fill the vacancy.
The trickle down effect of funding the new court staff positions might be seen at the Sparks Justice Court, which receives its budget from the county.
“It could have an impact on us,” court administrator Janine Baker said.
For years the justice court has been understaffed and lacked infrastructural resources to handle its hefty caseload, officials said.
For example, courtroom proceedings sometimes operate without a bailiff, as only three are allocated from the county budget. This presents obvious security problems.
The staffing shortages also “bog down” the court calendar, Baker said.
If the sheriff’s, district attorney’s or public defender’s budgets expand to support the proposed staffing recommendations, the Sparks Justice Court might see its own piece of the fiscal pie shrink.
“It’s a fairly unstable funding source,” Baker said.
A date for discussion and possible approval of funding for the new court staffing has not yet been scheduled and county Commissioner Bonnie Weber said it would be taken up as part of the budget process this year.
While some officials expressed that all parties involved had worked cooperatively with one another, Weber said she was unhappy that the sheriff’s office and other departments involved had issued press releases detailing their concerns.
“I think it is not being handled in an appropriate way,” she said. “I think it is more appropriate for them to come to the county commission” rather than the media.
Though it will take some time to work these concerns out, Hardy, who has served as a judge with the District Court for six years, said he will grow the criminal caseload slowly over a period of several months as a “concession to the stakeholders” involved.
“We are working with them to vindicate taxpayer confidence,” he said.