BY STEVEN FRIEDERICH
The Daily World
MONTESANO -- Grays Harbor Superior Court Judge Dave Edwards says he and his fellow judges will "absolutely" file a lawsuit to stop the line item budget cuts the Grays Harbor County commissioners have imposed on the Superior Court and Juvenile Detention Center.
"They've left us no choice," Edwards said.
Edwards says he met with the chief deputy attorney general and the state's solicitor general on Friday.
"And both of them agree with our position that the commissioners do not have the authority to reduce the salaries of our employees or reduce the hours of work or days of work for our employees," Edwards said. "They do not have the authority to make line item reductions to our budget, like they have done."
The state plans to file paperwork to bring on a special attorney general to officially file the lawsuit, Edwards said. Expected to become the special attorney general is Seattle attorney Scott Missall, of Short Cressman & Burgess PLLC. Missall's website states he specializes in government law and is the city attorney for the city of Mill Creek.
The budget unanimously approved by the county commissioners on Monday would reduce the Superior Court's $704,838 requested budget by $59,020. Of that cut, the county commissioners have flagged about $39,000 to come from salaries and benefits of the court staff. The budget includes the salaries of two court reporters, an executive secretary, a court administrator and half the salaries of the three judges. The state covers the other half of their salaries.
Judge Edwards says he has no idea where the county commissioners expect his office to take the cut in staff.
"We are short staffed as it is," Edwards said.
The Juvenile Detention Center's $2.3 million request would be reduced by $313,052. Detention Administrator Greg Reynvaan says the cut came as a surprise to him and he's not sure where to take it. He has 30 employees. The approved line item budget calls for Reynvaan to take most of the cuts from administration salaries and benefits as well as the cost for office support, counselors and detention staff.
County Commissioner Terry Willis acknowledged Monday morning that the budget does contain cuts that won't make the judges happy.
"This budget is built on what we believe are not only our jurisdictions but also our duty to present a balanced budget and that's what this picture is," Willis said.
There had been talk that the administration aspect of Juvenile Court participate in a countywide once-a-month shutdown, but those details are also still being worked out, she said.
"They're charging ahead blindly determined to have a fight," Edwards said.
Edwards said judges taking county commissioners to court is not unprecedented.
He cites one case where the state Supreme Court ruled that juvenile detention employees were only county employees when it came to setting salaries, but were state employees in all other aspects, including setting working conditions and hours.
"We've also looked at state supreme court cases from other states. In 2009 in Ohio, the board of commissioners cut a Superior Court budget by 20 percent, citing lack of funds and the Ohio State Supreme Court said you can't do that," Edwards said.
"Two months ago if you'd asked me would you be surprised that you'd actually have to file a lawsuit, I'd say yes because I would have expected the commissioners would have done their homework," he added.
During public hearings and public comment sessions on Monday, the county commissioners heard criticism that they had allowed the dispute with the judges to get this far.
Willis announced that the judges have developed legal bills in excess of $20,000. She said the commissioners have a legal bill of about $600. The bills will all be paid by the county.
Willis said she had a 20-minute conversation with a special deputy prosecutor assigned to represent the commissioners and determined that the commissioners do have the right to set the budgets for the judges.
Steven Friederich, a Daily World writer, can be reached at (360) 537-3927 or by email at sfriederich [at] thedailyworld [dot] com