Cowlitz County commissioners must temporarily delay budget cuts for Superior Court on Friday or face a lawsuit from the judges Monday.
Commissioners will hold a special meeting Friday to discuss a “tolling agreement” with the judges. It’s essentially a plan to continue negotiations about the cuts and extends the legal time frame in which judges can sue the county about their budget. Commissioners are expected to approve the extension, but it may be shorter than the judges had hoped.
Other department heads can be held personally liable if they don’t institute the 5 percent cuts commissioners ordered earlier this month. Superior Court judges, however, have another option. By state law, they can sue the county if it doesn’t provide enough money to carry out the courts’ required duties.
Without an extension, the deadline for the judges to notify the county they’re suing is Monday. Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning said the judges will sue if they don’t get the extension.
“Our perspective is we simply cannot and will not take those cuts,” Warning said Thursday.
Commissioners announced earlier this month that they were balancing the 2013 budget in part with across the board 5 percent cuts to each department. The move cut $2 million from the budget, but also caught may department heads by surprise. Several testified at the budget hearing that they will have to lay off workers to meet the cuts. Warning also spoke at the meeting, telling commissioners there’s no way he can cut 5 percent without laying off staff and reminding commissioners of the legal remedies available to the judges.
Thursday, Warning said the judges need more time to discuss the matter with commissioners. Negotiations will include whether the courts will have to make the cuts at all and, if they do, how additional savings could be found. “Everything is on the table,” he said.
The judges requested a delay until Aug. 1, which would give them six months to negotiate with the commissioners. Late Thursday afternoon, though, Commissioner Mike Karnofski said the commissioners are leaning more toward a three-month extension ending March 1.
He said commissioners want to work with the judges to solve the problem but added “We have to get the money from somewhere.”
For now, though, Karnofski said commissioners want to take more time to work with the judges and extend the legal time frame for any lawsuit decisions.
Friday’s meeting is at 12:30 p.m. in the hearing room on the third floor of the county Administration Building, 207 Fourth Ave. North, Kelso. It will likely be the last vote for retiring Commission Chairman George Raiter, whose term expires Monday.