At noon Friday, the doors of the Dimond Courthouse in Juneau were locked and the building closed for the day.
At the same exact time, across the street at the Alaska State Capitol, lawmakers and court officials talked about a future where courts across the state could be open all day on Fridays. Doug Wooliver, deputy administrative director of the Alaska Court System, presented to the House Judicial Committee on Friday and updated the representatives on the court system’s financial situation.
There have been nearly $11 million in cuts to the court system since the 2016 fiscal year, Wooliver said, and the court system has taken numerous cost-saving measures, including having courthouses open only half the day on Fridays. When Gov. Mike Dunleavy expressed an interest in funding the court system to open up on Friday afternoons, Wooliver said, he and the Supreme Court jumped at the chance.
“We wanted to open on Friday afternoons since we’ve closed, we just didn’t see an opportunity,” Wooliver said.
While Wooliver said he was looking forward to the prospect of staying open on Friday, he did have one qualm with the governor’s proposed budget. In the budget, he said, there’s a pay raise for employees in the executive branch. In previous years, Wooliver said, when there’s a pay raise for executive branch employees, there are also raises for other departments including those in the court system.
The court system is now asking for about $1.75 million in raises for its employees, according to Wooliver’s presentation. Wooliver said this is the only time he can remember having to ask for that.
Wooliver said getting a pay raise for court employees is a larger priority than keeping courts open on Fridays. It’s also not as expensive, as the proposed budget lists about $3.1 million to keep courts open on Fridays.
“We’ve already had court employees being paid a lower salary because of their lower hours and work, which makes it difficult to recruit and retain because that job doesn’t pay as well,” Wooliver said. “If the Legislature brings us back to the full week, they’ll get their full pay again, but if executive branch employees get a raise and court system employees don’t get a raise, it’s going to become incredibly difficult to recruit and retain employees.”
In a press availability Friday, Dunleavy said he hadn’t yet heard the court system’s concerns. He said he’s open to having discussions with the court system because one of Dunleavy’s main priorities is improving public safety in the state.
“We’ve made it clear that we’re going to support our public safety approach with funding and resources, and we’re going to continue to do that,” Dunleavy said.
The governor’s proposed budget allocates about $3.5 million to the court system, with most of that going to fund courts opening on Fridays. The remaining $400,000 is for facility maintenance, according to Wooliver’s presentation.
Staying as fully staffed as possible is a major priority for the court system, Wooliver said. In 2018, the Alaska Court System saw the highest number of felony cases ever for a single year, he said.
With more hearings and staff stretched thin, the ability to recruit and retain employees is vital for the court system, Wooliver said.
“All you need to have is one person on leave or out sick right now and we don’t have enough staff,” Wooliver said.
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.