On petition for review pursuant to Rule 1:33-9.
For modification -- Chief Justice Wilentz, and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. For reversal -- None.
These proceedings brought under Rule 1:33-9 result from an impasse between the Camden County Board of Freeholders and the Camden County Assignment Judge concerning the 1987 operating budget for the Camden County courts.
The case requires us, once again, to evaluate a request for additional resources to operate an efficient judicial system in light of the resources available to county governments to fund those operations. Currently, New Jersey's judicial system is funded largely through two main sources: appropriations from the State's general revenues and appropriations from each county's tax upon real property within that county. Additionally, certain designated court operations receive federal funds. Intensive study of the present system's fiscal implications continues. The July 1987 Report of the State of New Jersey's County and Municipal Government Study Commission on Judicial Unification notes that the state trial court system is primarily funded by county government. "Counties provide 91% of the personnel and 82% of the expenditures. The 1986 net county cost for funding the State Trial Court System is $174.3 million." Id. at XIV. We recognize this burden.
Prior to our 1981 adoption of Rule 1:33-9, budget disputes between county government and the county's judiciary were subject to resolution by order of the assignment judge for the county's vicinage. We designed the Rule 1:33-9 procedures, which provide for review of the impasse by a panel consisting of a judge or judges not from the vicinage and other persons, to assure each of the parties that its position will receive a disinterested review and a balanced presentation to this Court. Neither party in the present case is fully pleased by the panel's report, but each party was able to present its case fully to the panel.
We have established the procedure under Rule 1:33-9 better to resolve disputes between the judiciary and county government once an impasse has developed over county-based funding. However, this case demonstrates that more should be done in the initial budgeting stages to seek to resolve the matters in dispute. For, in addition to the monetary constraints discussed, the budgeting cycle of county government poses special problems. State government operates on a July 1-June 30 fiscal year. Thus, ordinarily, an agency of state government will have its budget set for an upcoming year when the appropriations bill is signed. That agency will be able to plan its year at that point. County government, however, does not fund its annual fiscal program until the fiscal year is partially over. County government budgets on a calendar year basis, but by law county budgets are not adopted until February 25th. N.J.S.A. 40A:4-10. In practice, budget adoption frequently occurs even later because county government tries to forecast the outcome of state budgeting that is taking place concurrently. In this case the county budget was not adopted until late April.
The judicial manager at the county level thus does not learn until April what his or her operating budget is for the fiscal year that began in January; he or she then must try to fill vacant job titles via Civil Service or otherwise within the allotted months remaining in the budget year. When, as here, an impasse delays resolution of the judiciary's budget, the process makes for about four months of real budget planning. These problems are further complicated by the fact that the responsible officials each must proceed without the benefit of a full understanding of the other's situation. County witnesses were candid here to admit that they had not developed the expertise to evaluate the sums necessary to operate an efficient court system, although they were obliged by the procedural posture of this case to offer such views. The officers of the judiciary were equally candid concerning the county's financial constraints. Superimposed upon all of this are the provisions
of N.J.S.A. 40A:4-45.4, the so-called "Cap Law" that generally limits any county's appropriations in a given year to an amount not in excess of five percent of the previous year's tax levy in that county. One can imagine how industry would thrive on such a budgetary cycle. The need for improved planning and harmony of effort at the county level is clear, for the county, the judiciary, and the public will ultimately suffer if we do not now efficiently plan governmental services.
A brief recital of the overall economic issues will place the matter in perspective. The adopted 1987 Camden County budget for all operations was $176,076,509. The amount appropriated by the County for the judicial branch was $8,248,353, or roughly 4.7% of the total County budget. The dispute arises from the difference between that figure and the assignment judge's original request of $9,026,645.
On May 5, 1987, pursuant to Rule 1:33-9(a), the Assignment Judge entered a recommended disposition and order that, if it had not been appealed by the filing of a notice of petition for review by the Supreme Court, would have added $833,838 to the judiciary budget. The difference between the judiciary's original and later requests reflects in part some misunderstanding about what was contained in non-judiciary portions of the county's budget affecting judicial employees. Infra at 29. The County, however, filed its notice of petition for review, and the Assignment Judge filed a response as mandated by Rule 1:33-9(c). Pursuant to its discretionary power under Rule 1:33-9(d), the Court granted the petition and referred the matter to a designated three-member panel. That panel consisted of Charles S. Joelson and William G. Bischoff, retired judges, and Walter Wechsler, former Budget Director of the State of New Jersey.
Hearings were conducted by the panel on July 7, 8, and 9, 1987. Principal witnesses were the Camden County Comptroller
on behalf of the County, and the Trial Court Administrator on behalf of the Assignment Judge. Each party was represented by counsel, and the panel engaged in considerable questioning and discussion with all involved.
The panel submitted its report on July 23, 1987, recommending an increase of $361,109. Thereafter, both the County and Assignment Judge filed exceptions to that report. On August 3, 1987, this Court accepted the panel report with one exception and by order reduced the Assignment Judge's requested increase over the County's appropriation to $315,046. This opinion follows that order and explains our conclusions in this matter. For the convenience of the parties, we shall refer to the hearing record by reference to the transcripts of the hearings and to certain exhibits.
The panel report thoroughly discusses the objections and budgetary concerns expressed by the County. At the outset, it recognizes the significant pressure on the County to adjust its budget to account for $26,450,000 in revenue losses and mandatory budget increases for 1987 alone, in the context of a total 1987 budget appropriation of $176,076,509. As the panel noted, the limitation by the "cap" law, N.J.S.A. 40A:4-45.4, of annual tax increases generally to five percent over the previous year's county tax levy complicated the matter. A final wrinkle was the occurrence of an additional pay period in 1987. Hence, the Board of Freeholders was forced to impose deep cuts in the requested budgets of many County departments and programs: $750,000 from the County College request (causing a concomitant increase in tuition); $500,000 from the County Board of Social Services' request; and $4,700,000 from various County departmental requests, including $1,961,324 from the Psychiatric and Long Term Care program for County hospitals.
These were significant cuts, imposed to solve a difficult problem faced by the County. Yet despite the cuts, and as
stated by the panel, "the County [would nevertheless] face a deficit and be over the 'cap' law limitations if it must comply with the Assignment Judge's order of May 15, 1987[.]" We are not unmindful of this effect: we are concerned about the ...