Frustrated judges and court employees on Thursday pleaded with Lafayette City-Parish Council members for more money for personnel and improvements to the parish courthouse.
A particularly sore point among 15th Judicial District Court workers who spoke at a budget hearing on Thursday was the exclusion of judicial staff from cost-of-living raises for city-parish employees that the council passed last year.
“I am a resident, taxpayer and voter in District 8, and I am proud to say I think my efforts make a difference,” said Janell Credeur, who serves as Judge Marilyn Castle’s secretary. “That is why I was frankly insulted.”
Chief Judge Charles Fitzgerald, Judge Jules Edwards and the court administrator, Tina LeMaire, also addressed the council to request 2 percent raises for eight secretaries and a receptionist, as well as funding to pay for law clerks. They also asked for money to replace glass partitions on courtroom and office walls, and for upgrades to electrical wiring and ceiling speakers.
The council will consider the requests as an amendment to Mayor-President Joel Robideaux's proposed 2020 budget. Final adoption of the budget is scheduled for Sept. 5.
Taken together, these requests would cost about $320,000, and in Fitzgerald’s view the most important is by far the least expensive. That’s the cost-of-living raises for nine staff members, at an approximate cost of $9,500.
Judges are state employees, Fitzgerald told the council, but their secretaries work for the parish, meaning the secretaries’ salaries depend on the whims of local government. Ponying up to pay for and retain competent secretaries is critical to the quality of services provided to the public, as well as the court’s efficiency, Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald noted in an interview, for example, that his division handled about 1,500 civil domestic cases last year in which a litigant did not have an attorney. Judges are legally prohibited from communicating with any litigant outside of open court, leaving his secretary and staff attorney as the only two people in his office who can help those needing information.
“If they don’t have an attorney, they have no idea what to do, and that creates fear,” Fitzgerald said. “A big part of what (staff) does is talking to them, explaining where to go for self-help resources.”
The city-parish employee raises last year cost about $900,000, an amount that was easily covered by the flush general fund of the city budget. The parish budget, on the other hand, is nearly broke, although it wasn’t made clear at the hearing Thursday if that’s the reason courthouse employees were excluded from the raises.
Depletion of the parish general fund is, however, the reason Mayor-President Joel Robideaux did not restore full funding for law clerks in his 2020 budget proposal, according to Chief Financial Officer Lorrie Toups. City-Parish funding for law clerks has dropped from about $370,000 to less than half that amount over the past four years.
The parish budget was impossible to balance, as required by law, with the money for law clerks, Toups said. That was, in part, to make room for the salaries of new parish council members next year, once the city-parish council splits, she said.
“We came out with a negative fund balance. It’s against the law for us to adopt a budget like that,” Toups said.
Judges and others who work at the Lafayette Parish courthouse have long complained that the building, in addition to being in terrible condition, is a physically unsafe environment, with defendants coming into uncomfortable proximity with witnesses, jurors and judges.
One frequently stated nightmare scenario involves a defendant managing to wrestle a gun from a guard and shoot through glass partitions. In that event, city-parish government will have only itself to blame, said Edwards.
“I need to impress upon you, we are a moment away from a tragic incident occurring at that courthouse,” Edwards told council members. “If there is a tragedy, don’t wonder what happened, how did it happen. Look in the mirror.”