An official of the D.C. court system yesterday predicted "a disaster" if the courts are forced to comply with an order by Mayor Marion Barry to cut $603,000 in funds from their budget by Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
"It's just devastating," said Larry P. Polansky, executive officer of the court system, which includes D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals. "We just don't have that kind of money to be taken from."
Barry ordered the cuts in order to balance a revenue shortfall that had threatened to leave the city with a deficit at the end of the year. In all, said city budget director Betsy Reveal, about $15 million in cutbacks were necessary because revenues fell short of budget allotments.
The cuts, outlined in a letter from Barry to City Council Chairman David A. Clarke, also include a $7 million trimming of the $306.5 million operating budget for the city's schools.
The orders for a reduction in the courts' $41.5 million budget come at a time when court officials say they are strapped for cash and need more money for additional personnel to deal with a crushing backlog.
More than 100 attorneys who normally provide counsel for indigent defendants remain on strike with picket lines outside the courthouse in a protest over pay rates that haven't changed in 13 years.
The Senate earlier this year approved nearly $3 million in funds to hire seven additional judges on the court and provide them new courtrooms and staff.
Court officials were given notice of the cuts in a hand-delivered letter from the mayor Thursday, Reveal said. The mayor did not specify where the cuts should occur, she said, but asked authorities at the court to notify the budget office how they wished spending to be modified.
The court system is semi-autonomous, but the mayor recommends to Congress the level at which the courts should be funded, in the same way that he recommends spending levels for other semi-autonomous agencies like the school system.
Polansky declined to speculate yesterday on how court spending might be cut back in order to comply with the mayor's order. Theoretically, he said, the money could be taken from anywhere in the courts' budget, including fees for jurors, witnesses and court-appointed defense attorneys or salaries for court personnel.
More likely, funds would be cut from supplies and equipment. But Polansky said court funds for those items already have been allocated.
"There is nothing not allocated at this point," Polansky said. "I wish I knew where he Mayor Barry is headed with all this."
"I don't know what they're going to have to do," said Reveal. "They can find it anywhere they want to. We'll just have to wait and see how they accomplish that."
Reveal downplayed the ordered cuts, saying they still left the courts with more funds than had originally been budgeted. The courts originally were budgeted $40.3 million, but supplemental budget increases during the fiscal year raised that figure more than $1 million. The new cuts would leave the courts with a total of $40.9 million for the fiscal year.
Agency budgets citywide, she said, "are all higher than what they were originally appropriated. They're just not as much higher as what they would have liked."
Reveal said it is unlikely the courts will be forced to turn to their payrolls for the cuts. Indications in July were that the courts will run a surplus in that area, a city official said.
Reveal said the potential that cuts would be needed was well known to officials before the mayor's announcement and added that the courts must share in balancing the budget. CAPTION: Picture, MAYOR MARION BARRY . . . cut $603,000 from courts' budget