Last Friday, Edgartown district court clerk magistrate Thomas Teller had to hand pink slips to two of his most loyal employees. The decision to lay off two experienced employees comes as the commonwealth faces a severe budgetary crisis.
The layoffs cut his clerical staff of four in half, and the implications are far-reaching. The Vineyard legal system will suffer as that office tries to handle an already overwhelming load of cases.
Mr. Teller laid off his head administrative assistant with 10 years of experience and the court's bookkeeper of seven years. "The cut disembowels the court," Mr. Teller told the Gazette on Wednesday.
"We can't function without them," he said. The layoffs bring the staff in the state-funded office back to 1971 levels. The action was taken to save $52,840.
In June, July and August, the court handled 633 defendants, about the same as last year. Last September, the court handled an additional 106 defendants. If the court hears roughly the same amount this month, that would bring the four-month total to more than 700 people. Yet the court is the second smallest court in the region, suffering from space and staffing problems that have been the subject of complaints for years.
"We are just going to have to prioritize the cases," said Mr. Teller. That means that all public safety cases will be moved forward while everything else, Mr. Teller said, "will be put on the back burner."
Cases that are of lesser importance include civil cases such as contract disputes, larceny, small claims court cases, trespassing, bylaw violations and landlord-tenant disputes. The community will feel the impact of the cuts at once.
Assault and domestic abuse cases are considered public safety, so those cases will continue to be handled as expeditiously as in the past.
Mr. Teller said the state budget passed by the legislature gave each court a separate line item. "Of all the district courts, we are the third highest in the state to be cut. Yet we are the most efficient in the state and the most cost-effective. We took a 14.9 per cent cut, the highest in the state for district courts."
Mr. Teller said that some of the state's busy courts were cut but because of supplemental budgets, their funds have been restored.
The irony is that the district court is charged with settling disputes and issuing fines and jail time in a fair way. Yet the state is not being fair in its dealings with the Edgartown district court, Mr. Teller said. "This is outrageous, to lay off employees with 10 and seven years of experience while elsewhere in the state, people hired in the last year or the year before have not been hit. We are in the business of being just but no one is being just to us."
Mr. Teller, 70, has been working for the court system for 38 years and he has never before had to issue a pink slip. "This is the worst thing that has ever happened here. These people have bills to pay, medical insurance, and they've just been given two weeks' notice."
"The Edgartown court took one of the biggest hits of any court in the commonwealth," Mr. Teller said. "Nantucket's budget was cut by $25,000 compared to $52,840 for Edgartown. However, one must consider the cost per case entry when analyzing any court budget. Each case being processed in Edgartown court cost $94, based on last year's budget. In no other district court in the state does it cost less than $100 per case."
Probate court on the Vineyard is also facing significant cuts; there is talk of moving probate court entirely to Barnstable.
As an aside, Mr. Teller said that last January during the state budgetary crisis, many employees in the statewide court system donated eight days of their salary so the court could avert massive layoffs. "The irony is that those employees who donated eight days of pay are now being laid off, while those who were saved last January, those jobs are secure."
Mr. Teller said: "Edgartown District Court collects 84 per cent of its budget total in fines and fees turned over to the state. I am very confident that no other court in the state comes close to the percentage collected by Edgartown."
Mr. Teller said the probation department has a heavier caseload per officer than any other probation office in the state.
"There remains some hope that layoffs can be averted in Edgartown, Mr. Teller said. "The supplemental budget earmarked $1.5 million to the chief administrative justice for staffing reserves. It is hoped that office will realize the impact staffing cuts will have on an already depleted staff at Edgartown."