A turnaround for the fiscally troubled probate courts

On the heels of a major consolidation, Connecticut’s probate court system will end a year in the black for the first time in six fiscal years later this month, reducing its reliance on the General Fund and returning more than $5 million to the state’s coffers.

The turnaround is well-timed as the new state biennial state budget calls for supplemental aid to the probate system to drop in each of the next two fiscal years.

“The probate court administrator and judges worked very hard to reduce the number of probate courts down,” said Judge Barbara M. Quinn, Connecticut’s chief court administrator. “We are confident that the probate courts are on a sound financial footing, which is necessary to preserve the courts.”

According a budget report submitted by Judge Paul J. Knierim, the probate court administrator, the system is on pace to spend $28.6 million this fiscal year, nearly $1.9 million less than the approved budget and roughly $8 million less than was spent last fiscal year.

“The result of the consolidation and financial restructuring are very strong,” Knierim said Wednesday, “and savings projections exceed our original expectations.”

One of the oldest probate courts systems in the nation with roots dating back over 300 years, the Connecticut courts underwent a dramatic restructuring in January to reverse growing financial woes.

The state’s 117 court districts were consolidated into 54, while judges’ salaries were reset based on caseloads and capped at 75 percent of the $146,780 annual salary for a Superior Court judge. Knierim’s office froze two vacant positions, and cut data processing, maintenance and mileage reimbursement accounts.

“The judges and the employees of our courts deserve credit for being part of the solution,” Knierim said. “It was a painful process in many ways.”

“The first point of the whole reorganization was to stem the hemorrhaging once we abandoned the idea that the courts could pay entirely for themselves,” said Rep. Robert Godfrey, D-Danbury, who spearheaded the reform effort that took two years to move through the legislature. “The fact that it happened was a miracle.”

The probate system was subjected to heavy criticism between 2006 and 2009 after a private-sector report and a study from the legislature’s Program Review and Investigations Committee 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.

The courts traditionally have been self-sustaining, operating with fees charged for various services.

But probate judges argued that the system’s fiscal independence also was threatened by a tremendous surge in the expense of providing free services such as subsidized legal counsel to low-income residents who cannot afford representation.

A system reserve fund that exceeded $18 million in 2005 was gradually whittled down by one annual deficit after another and stood at less than $4.7 million entering this fiscal year.

The General Assembly allocated $3 million to close the probate court books at the end of 2009-10 and another $8.75 million to cover general operating costs to start the reorganized system this year. And while lawmakers said they recognized that the system no longer could be self-sustaining, many said they thought that supplemental appropriation could be pared down in future years.

Lawmakers were true to their word in the new biennial budget, allocating roughly $2.9 million in supplemental funding for general operating costs in 2010-11 and $3.3 million in 2012-13.

Last month Quinn approved Knierim’s request for a $33.3 million system budget for 2011-12, and the probate court administrator said “we think we can achieve a balanced budget again with that” $2.9 million allocation from the General Fund.