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Southern and Eastern Districts Stave Off Sequester Furloughs
New York Law Journal
Furloughs of federal court employees are off the table in the Southern District, and postponed at least until April in the Eastern District, as court officials struggle to mitigate the damage of budget cuts that went into effect on Friday.
Officials in both the Southern and Eastern districts say they are stretching their non-salary budgets to the limit after having left vacated positions unfilled in advance of the "sequester"the $85 billion in "automatic" budget cuts accepted by both political parties in an effort to force negotiations for a broader deal on deficit reduction.
On the morning of March 1, Southern District Chief Judge Loretta Preska (See Profile) and District Executive Edward Friedland held a townhall meeting with more than 130 employees in the ceremonial courtroom at 500 Pearl St. Other employees watched via live feed from the courthouse at the Woolworth Building, where probation and pretrial services are housed, and the courthouse in White Plains.
Friedland said it was an emotional meeting, as anxious employees fearing as many as 12 unpaid days before Sept. 30 were relieved to hear the good news. If the situation doesn't change, court officials are hopeful they can complete the year without those cuts.
Some workers, he said, were in tears at the end of the meeting, with a few coming forward to hug Preska.
"A lot of them are living paycheck to paycheck and losing 12 more days would have had a significant impact on them," he said. "The mean salary for employees in the Southern District is actually lower than the national average and it's the lowest in the Second Circuit. Keep in mind, their health care premiums have gone up, the MTA raised the fare again, and [furloughs] really would have completed the bad news."
In Brooklyn, Chief Judge Carol Amon (See Profile) and Clerk of Court Douglas Palmer have been meeting with their department heads and bracing their employees for the sequester. Non-salary budgets, already cut 10 percent this year, are being squeezed to avoid furloughs, at least for now.
"We are not making immediate decisions about anything, and we're not making any decisions on furloughs," Amon said.
Instead, like their counterparts in the Southern District, the Eastern District is trying to get along with far fewer personnelinterpreters, pretrial services and probation workers, and workers in the clerks' office.
The clerk's office, Palmer said, had 172 employees in 2006. That number is now down to 130. The number of new filings in the district increased to 7,963 last year from 6,951 in 2008.
Palmer said that employee furloughs, if they happen at all, would not begin until April.
"We really don't know what the year will bring until the continuing [budget] resolution is passed," Palmer said. "So it doesn't make sense to force people into a furlough situation if they can't recoup their money."
The sequester added another 4 percent to the 10 percent cuts already implemented this year by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
"Every court employee is already doing more with less," Preska told employees.
She said a number of cost-saving measures have been taken, including asking judges and law clerks not to use general lighting during weekends and instead use plug-in lamps to cut the $600,000 overtime utility bill the court saw last year.
Probation and Pretrial, she said, are cutting back on treatment costs by decreasing the amount of units of treatment for every supervisee and forgoing drug tests for people who are going to be remanded without bail.
Preska said her unit chiefs will continue to look for cost savings through buyouts, early retirements and other methods.
She also cautioned court employees that the Southern District may not have seen the worst of tight budgets, saying, "We cannot see the future but it doesn't look good." Court officials are nervously awaiting the March 27 expiration of the continuing resolution that funded their budget.
Western District Chief Clerk Michael Roemer, like his counterparts in New York City and Albany, is expecting specific allotment information by the end of next week. Until then, he said the situation is unclear.
"The administrative office has advised us to wait until April before taking any steps because nobody knows what will happen in the future," Roemer said. Echoing Palmer, he said, "Once you furlough someone or lay them off, it is very hard to unring that bell."
Even without the sequester, budgets are already under pressure.
In the Northern District, Public Defender Lisa Peebles of Syracuse said she and the other seven attorneys representing indigent defendants in the sprawling 33-county region are anticipating eight furlough daysand more if there are further cutbacks.
"I gave notice to my employees that everybody, myself included, will be furloughed eight days between now and the end of the fiscal year [on Sept. 30], regardless of the sequester," Peebles said. "It will really wreak havoc with our program and it is going to definitely impact the quality of the representation we are able to provide. We are doing more with less for the time being, and who knows what is going to happen in 2014."
Unless the situation changes, Northern District Marshal David McNulty said he anticipates 13 to 14 furlough days before the end of the fiscal year.
"We would have to rotate personnel to avoid affecting services and we would coordinate with the courts to avoid having to shut anything down," McNulty said. "But nobody really knows and we are hoping something happens to save the day."
@|Mark Hamblett can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. John Caher contributed to this report.