Court cuts kick in with Lake Isabella branch closed

LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) -- As of Monday, the Kern County Superior Court Branch in Lake Isabella is closed, and hours of service for the public are cut back at all court branches. Local officials say it's all because Sacramento has slashed courts funding for the past several years.

"We have a net impact of probably a $3.5 million shortfall, and I have to bridge that gap," Court Executive Officer Terry McNally told Eyewitness News. "We're reliant on the state to provide sufficient funding to keep our doors open." That gap means the doors are closed at the Kern River Court Branch in Lake Isabella as of Monday, June 10.

"I think it's horrible," Kern River Valley resident Sherry Guy said. "A lot of us can't afford to drive to Bakersfield to get to court."

McNally said the state has reduced court funding for several years, and Kern's courts can't squeeze the money any more. "They didn't give us any more funds, the cumulative impact has been almost $9 million in reductions for these four or five years." McNally said the state is also taking away the "rainy day" funds for courts.

As of Monday, all in-custody Felony cases from the Kern River branch will be transferred to Bakersfield. Misdemeanor and civil cases will be heard at the Ridgecrest Branch.

McNally said the Kern River court was cut back to only one day a week in 2009 when state funding cuts started. That same fate is now on tap for the court in Taft.

As of September, the Taft/Maricopa Branch Court will operate only on Thursdays. At that time Taft will only hear small claims, smaller civil cases and local traffic infractions on Thursdays, according to materials from the courts.

Also as of September, other cases that would have been heard in Taft will be transferred to the Arvin/Lamont Branch. The court will also have a "drop box" available on Thursdays at the Taft Branch for submitting local civil and traffic filings, according to a press release.

Drop boxes have also been added at other court branches because counter- and phone service hours are being cut back. Starting June 10 those services will be available Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. till 3 p.m. And on Fridays from 8 a.m. until noon.

The drop boxes will allow the public to file documents right up to 5 p.m. "It's primarily for processing your paperwork," McNally explained. "As long as you drop it in before 5:00, then it's considered filed as of that day."

However, there will not be a drop box at the Kern River Branch in Lake Isabella, since that court is completely closed. That court facility is in a building on Lake Isabella Blvd. that also houses a number of county offices. But, McNally says the section that's been used by the court belongs to the state.

So, what's ahead for that? "That's something the county and state will have to decide," McNally told Eyewitness News. He said the county could decide to take over that section, or wait a while to see if state funding for courts get restored and the branch could be reopened.

The court officer said the cuts have meant reducing clerk staff. McNally said local courts had a staff of about 500 several years ago, but that's now been cut down to 350. Most of that has been through attrition or retirement. "I'm proud to say of all these processes, we've only had to officially lay off one person," McNally said.

Also to save money, court reporter services are being reduced. McNally said the court will no longer provide reporters for family law matters and unlimited civil matters. In those cases, individuals will have to provide contract reporters for hearings.

In Lake Isabella, the loss of the court branch worries resident Christine Kirsch. And, she wonders if it's really necessary. "It's unfortunate," she said Monday. "I'd like to see it turned around, now that there's a surplus in the state budget."

But, McNally says any extra funds are already spoken for. "The money that was resulting from that tax initiative is all going for education," he said.

He suggests the public can get a lot of information by checking the Kern County Superior Court Web page. That will have details on court cases, dates, and other information about making a court appearance.

Meanwhile local courts will deal with the cuts, McNally said. People can expect delays and backlogged cases.

"Certainly anybody that has a civil case can expect delays," McNally predicts. He said by law, criminal cases require a speedy trial. So, civil cases will see more of the cutback impacts. "It will take even probably more time to find out what the judgment will be in that case," he said.