Restructured probate court system sends dollars back to state’s coffers

Two years removed from the verge of fiscal collapse, Connecticut’s restructured Probate Court system has returned more than $10 million to state’s coffers over the past two fiscal years.

And though the restructured system’s administrative budget now includes an annual assist from the General Fund, probate courts will return nearly three-quarters of the state money they received this fiscal year.

“Court consolidation dramatically cut costs, and the savings will benefit the taxpayers of the state on an ongoing basis,” Judge Paul J. Knierim, the state’s probate court administrator, said Friday.

The courts, which are projected to spend $33.5 million this fiscal year, cover the bulk of their operating costs through service fees, though the system also received $7.5 million from the state budget.

Knierim’s office reported last week that $5.5 million of those dollars will be going back.

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 2011 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 said that these changes have kept probate judges’ pay essentially flat since the restructuring. That, along with the overall reduction in judicial posts, has been the biggest, single, cost-control measure.

But Knierim said centralizing financial operations throughout the system also has led to significant savings in data processing and other professional services.

And though system officials are relieved to be reporting surpluses rather than deficits, Knierim said he believes that hasn’t been the only benefit.

“Our courts now have improved access, full-time hours” and “a full complement of knowledgeable and customer-service-oriented staff,” he said.

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 plagued with waste, patronage and a lack of professionalism.

The legislature’s restructuring mandated minimum staffing and professional development in all courts.

Though most of this year’s surplus was produced by cost controls, Knierim said that revenues for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, are running $1.5 million higher than expected. The system began charging interest penalties on overdue fees starting in January. Knierim said improved hours and staffing in some courts also has resulted in more cases being processed.

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, the disposition of property and other issues related to estates, and legal name changes.

The courts, which had long been self-sustaining, began to face big fiscal challenges seven years ago, due largely to surging demand for free services, such as subsidized legal counsel, from low-income residents who cannot afford representation.

A system reserve fund that exceeded $18 million in 2005 was gradually whittled away by 2011.

The system also had been a target for raids when the state budget ran into tough fiscal times. Legislators and governors swept $5 million from the probate system in 1991 and $15 million in 2002 to help close state budget deficits.

And though the restructured system prohibits the court network from maintaining more than $4 million in reserve — with annual surpluses going back to the General Fund — that didn’t keep the probate courts out of another budget battle this past week.

The Democratic-controlled legislature decided in May to assign $2.3 million from any probate system surplus to cover a wide array of education, youth service, music, health care, housing and other programs. And during last week’s special session, lawmakers designated another $1.1 million from the probate courts for other state programs and projects.

And while Democrats argued this was not comparable to past system raids, noting that the probate courts know they can’t keep surplus funds and weren’t counting on these dollars, Republicans countered that it was a bad sign.

“It worries me that when we have extra monies in these funds, they will simply be used for other purposes,” said Sen. Robert Kane of Watertown, the ranking GOP senator on the Appropriations Committee. “Any time there is a surplus anywhere we have a habit looking at it as found money. We have a bad habit of doing this.”