Philly courts $7M short

Without city, state funds, 150 could face layoffs

Without an infusion of almost $7 million, the Philadelphia court system will face the layoff of about 150 employees whose job it is to ensure that deadbeat parents pay their monthly child-support payments.

Such a move would mean long delays in helping families secure the money to which they're entitled, according to Common Pleas President Judge C. Darnell Jones II.

Jones also warned that the city might see a "ripple effect" of social problems on city streets already beset with violent crime.

David Lawrence, the First Judicial District's court administrator, said the added funds are needed because federal aid has been shrinking in recent years while employee health and pension costs have been rising.

And unlike every other county in the commonwealth, Lawrence said, Philadelphia provides no funds to help run the program.

"Direct city funding is needed to support the program," he said.

While Dianne Reed, the Street administration's top budget official, said the city is sympathetic to the court's problems, she noted that the court system for its 2008 budget has already been protected from a 2.5 percent cut that most other departments have had to endure.

She said city officials are talking with the Rendell administration to get money to fill the budget gap. If that fails, Reed said the city would face painful cuts elsewhere to accommodate the court request.

Lawrence said that the courts will consider suing to compel the city to fund the program as it did in 1998. The court system is also asking for an additional $5.3 million for other cost increases and raises for probation officers.

Speaking at a City Council budget hearing yesterday, Council President Anna Verna asked Lawrence about the status of the 1987 state Supreme Court ruling that required the state to pay for local court costs, which in Philadelphia amounts to about $114 million this year.

Since that ruling, governors and the General Assembly have all but ignored the order and only 13 local employees have been shifted to the state payroll.

"It has been a dormant issue for quite some time," Lawrence observed.

Also testifying were officials from the Philadelphia Museum of Art who said they were "dismayed" by the Street administration's proposed cut of $250,000, reducing the city subsidy to a total of $2 million at a time when the museum is spending $6.6 million on security and maintenance costs and is preparing to open its new Perelman Building. Museum officials asked for an increase in funding to $2.5 million.

And Vivian Miller, clerk of Quarter Sessions, said she needs an added $430,000 to hire 12 court clerks to cope with a growing workload in the court system. *