Editor’s Note: This is the third in a three-part series on funding issues for Baldwin County’s law enforcement and judicial agencies.
With the state legislature now back in session, talks about new revenue sources and budget changes are running rampant.
But, when it comes to funding for key elements of Baldwin County’s judicial and law enforcement systems, how do our law enforcement and judicial officials feel about the funding?
In this three-part series, The Baldwin Times talks to the sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office and Baldwin County court system about the funding, or lack thereof, received from the state and what concerns they have moving into this new legislative session.
At a recent Baldwin County Young Republican’s meeting, Baldwin County Presiding District Court Judge Michelle Thomason was blunt in talking about judiciary funding from the state.
“There has been a crisis in funding for the last several years,” Thomason said. “It was in such a crisis a few years ago when Justice Cobb was our Chief Justice that the courts had to shut down part of the week because we simply didn’t have the manpower.”
Thomason said judicial funding was overlooked as the state continued to face revenue shortfalls.
“We had layoffs,” Thomason said. “We had cuts. We had a hiring freeze for a number of years, and we had pay raise freezes as well. My assistant, at one point, at not had any type of pay raise for eight or nine years. I don’t know of too many jobs in the private sector where people will continue to work if they get no increase in pay over that amount of time based on what the economy does.”
While funding has been an issue for the last several years, Thomason said that over the past year, Gov. Ivey had been extremely helpful for the judiciary budget.
“We’ve been able to get some raises for our folks, which has helped tremendously in being able to keep staff and hire some new folks,” Thomason said. “We’re still short. There is no money to hire new judges in this state, though.”
Thomason said a plan has been floated at the state level to possibly address the judicial shortfall felt in counties like Baldwin, one developed by former Baldwin County Presiding Judge Jim Reid.
“It’s a plan to help establish and pass legislation to reallocate judges throughout the state,” Thomason said. “Some judges in some counties have nothing to do. They joke about playing solitaire on their computers all day or playing golf three times a week because they have no cases. But, here we are in Baldwin County, overloaded and covered up.”
The plan addresses the judiciary’s needs but doesn’t require additional revenue sources.
“Rather than just find some more money to pay for judges in places like Baldwin County where we need more help, Judge Reid’s plan was to take a look at this statewide and if there’s an area where there are too many judges, we can reallocate those positions to other parts of the state when judges or retire or those positions become available,” Thomason said.
Gov. Ivey was receptive to the plan, and appointed Thomason to the Judicial Resource Reallocation Commission
“I’ve been serving on that commission for about a year and a half, and we have presented a plan to the governor with a list of counties based on a weighted caseload study,” Thomason said. “Baldwin County is second and third on the list, needing two more circuit court judges and one more district judge.”
Thomason said the caseload placed on Baldwin County judges due to the increased growth in the county can be difficult to deal with, and she said she hopes the state follows through on the reallocation plan.
“We understand that the money in the general fund is so tight that it’s difficult to find more money to get more judges,” Thomason said. “What the judges are willing to do is to say that we get that but here’s a creative way to allow the citizens to benefit without costing the state any more money or having to raise taxes. We’re hoping that reallocation will come through as planned.”