Probate courts consolidation wiping red ink from the budget

Connecticut’s soon-to-be-consolidated probate courts now expect to run more cost-efficiently than ever, projecting a deficit for the next fiscal year that’s one-third of what the General Assembly anticipated before it overhauled the 300-year-old system in 2009.

The $4.3 million structural deficit built into the $30.4 million system budget also is less than half of the $10 million hole legislative analysts expected after the reforms, including a consolidation from 117 districts to 54, were adopted.

“We’re facing some uncertainties, but our financial condition already is stabilizing and improving,” Judge Paul J. Knierim of Simsbury, the state’s probate court administrator, said Wednesday. “I think we’re making very steady progress.

One of the oldest probate court systems in the nation, the Connecticut courts have come under considerable fire since a January 2006 report by the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee concluded the system was plagued by waste and inefficiency, patronage and a lack of professionalism.

But probate judges, who are elected to four-year terms in the districts where they serve, argued that while efficiencies could be found, their courts have become increasingly more complex – and thereby more costly to run – in recent years as their caseloads cover far more than family estates.

Probate judges make decisions about adoptions, custody and visitation rights, and several other child care issues, guardianships for the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled, health care decision-making, and legal name changes.

Further complicating matters, they said, was a tremendous surge in indigent costs, or the expense of providing free services such as subsidized legal counsel, to low-income residents who cannot afford representation. This is extremely problematic, Knierim said, since courts receive the bulk of their revenue through fees charged for the various services they provide. This expense, he said, has grown from about $500,000 one decade ago to nearly $4.3 million in the new budget.

A compromise plan crafted by legislators and probate court judges set several new standards including:

  • A requirement that all courts be open at least 40 hours per week. Some courts had been open as little as 20 hours.
  • A cap on probate court judges salaries at 75 percent of the annual compensation for Superior Court judges. Based on current pay, that equals $110,085.
  • Empowering the probate court administrator to order new training for judges and for staff.
  • A requirement that all judges also be licensed attorneys beginning with the new term that starts Jan. 5, 2011. District consolidations also take effect on that date.

Since these changes were ordered, the probate court administrator’s office has frozen salaries and two vacant positions, and cut data processing, maintenance and mileage reimbursement accounts, Knierim said.

Connecticut’s probate court judges have frozen their salaries in January 2009.

And a new statute enacted this year that allows probate courts to accept credit cards and to impose penalties on late fees also has helped to stabilize revenues, he said.

The system, which is expected to spend more than $37 million this fiscal year, had been projected to finish $3.6 million in deficit, despite $3 million in assistance from the state budget’s General Fund, but Knierim said it is on pace to finish with a modest, $820,000 surplus.

“I’m not surprised given the kind of cooperation we received,” state Rep. Robert Godfrey, D-Danbury, one of the leaders of the probate court overhaul, said Wednesday. “I have the highest regard and optimism about Judge Knierim.”

Godfrey added that Knierim and state’s probate court judges “bought into the need for these kinds of changes. … I believe they are as concerned as anyone in the legislative or executive branch about the importance of saving taxpayers’ money.”