Probate courts project first budget surplus in five years

After five years of running deficits, Connecticut’s down-sized probate system has reported a new budget that projects returning a modest $3 million to state government 12 months from now.

The $30.4 million plan reported to the General Assembly and Gov. M. Jodi Rell last week marks the first budget reflecting the dramatic consolidation ordered last year to reverse financial woes plaguing the probate system.

“One of the great benefits of the restructuring is it will give far greater stability to the system,” said Judge Paul J. Knierim of Simsbury, the probate court administrator. The plan reduces 117 court districts to 54, starting Jan. 1.

Though the consolidation is the highlight of the new budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, the system, which spent about $37 million last fiscal year, has undertaken several steps to end its run of deficits, Knierim said.

Connecticut’s probate court judges froze salaries for themselves and their staffs voluntarily last year. And under the consolidation ordered by the legislature, judges’ salaries now are based on their caseloads, capped at 75 percent of the annual pay of a Superior Court judge. Based on current rates, top pay for a probate judge now is $110,085.

Knierim’s office has frozen two vacant positions, and cut data processing, maintenance and mileage reimbursement accounts.

The new probate court budget is supported with nearly $12.5 million from the state’s general fund, including a first-ever allocation of $8.75 million for general operating costs.

Knierim said it’s too soon to tell whether the probate courts will be self-sustaining in the long-term under the new system. But with a $3 million surplus projected for 2010-11, and early estimates for $2.8 million in savings just from court consolidation alone in 2011-12, the potential is there to reduce the need for general fund dollars down the road.

“It looks favorable,” he said.

One of the oldest probate court systems in the nation, the Connecticut system was subjected to heavy criticism between 2006 and 2009 after public and private sector reports concluded the courts were wasteful and ripe with patronage.

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 the expense of providing free services such as subsidized legal counsel to low-income residents who cannot afford representation. Knierim reported earlier this year that this expense has grown from about $500,000 per year to nearly $4.3 million over the last decade.

The new probate court budget under the consolidated system had to be approved by the Judicial Branch before being reported to the governor and legislature.

Judge Barbara M. Quinn, the state’s chief court administrator, called the budget “a sea change for Connecticut’s historic probate courts,” adding in a letter to Knierim that it should ‘dramatically improve accountability, transparency and efficiency.”

But Quinn also warned that state government is one year away from facing a huge budget deficit, and that state funding for the probate courts could be in jeopardy in the near future.

According to a May report from the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, the 2011-12 fiscal year faces a built-in deficit of $3.37 billion.