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District courts are victims of economy, positions and workers' hours being cut

GRANITE FALLS -- Yellow Medicine County Sheriff Bill Flaten is concerned that the public doesn't fully realize what budget cuts to the court system might mean to them: Everything from enforcement of traffic speeding laws to conciliation court matters could be tossed to the wayside.

Court service employees in the Eighth Judicial District already know what the cuts mean. Two full-time employees recently accepted voluntary separation packages. Three other employees based in Kandiyohi, Chippewa and Pope counties will have their positions terminated May 1, District Judge Paul Nelson told the Yellow Medicine County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday.

Nelson, the district's chief judge, said the losses represent only the start of $1 million worth of cuts the 11-county district must make over three years. With a budget of $6.3 million per year, the impending cuts represent the equivalent of 18 full-time positions or 30 percent of the current staffing, he told the commissioners.

The Eighth Judicial District, which includes counties from Wilkin in the northwest to Renville in the southeast, has already been combining court administrator positions, leaving law clerk and other positions unfilled, and making do with less since major budget cuts were made in 2003.

Nelson said more cuts are ahead, starting July 1. The district will reduce the work week for employees to 37.5 hours, representing a 6 percent wage and salary cut.

The district may also see the number of judges reduced from 11 to nine.

District Judge Bruce Christopherson, chambered in Granite Falls, will be retiring this year. "His position will not be replaced soon, if ever,'' Nelson said.

Judge Peter Hoff in Wilkin County will be retiring in 1½ years, and it is also uncertain whether that position will be replaced.

What especially concerns Nelson is the cuts that may be needed on top of the $1 million already ordered for the next three years.

There are three different proposals being debated in the Legislature to cut the $300 million plus statewide court services budget. They range from a nearly 3 percent to a 7 percent cut. "The changes would be absolutely catastrophic,'' said Nelson of the 7 percent reduction proposed in the state Senate.

Cuts of that magnitude will force the statewide court system to quit processing a variety of misdemeanor offenses, he warned. Budget cuts may mean the courts will no longer handle speeding and similar traffic offenses, civil harassment and conciliation matters, and truancy and juvenile status offenses such as underage drinking.

The county commissioners said they feared that such a move would lead to a virtual "free for all,'' with people free to ignore everything from trespass to traffic laws.

Sheriff Flaten said the cuts would put law enforcement in a predicament and the public at risk. Officers can write tickets and issue citations, but absent the authority of a court or judge, there would no longer be any teeth in the law.

He said he fears law officers will field complaints from citizens about law violations and have to respond: "Sorry, we can't do anything about it.''

Said Judge Nelson of the possible cuts: "The rule of law is at stake.''