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Court Programs Should Expand without Major Budget Increase, Chief Justice Says

June 28, 2007 — The creation of new initiatives, programs and facilities will not significantly increase the budget of the territory's judicial branch, whose $34.2 million funding request is meant to cover the expenses of both the V.I. Superior Court and Supreme Court during fiscal year 2008.
"The budget submitted to you today is the result of careful thought, deliberation and planning, taking into consideration the territory's need to control expenditures," Chief Supreme Court Justice Rhys S. Hodge told senators during the second round of budget hearings on Thursday. "It is a minimal budget which takes into consideration of all of the costs necessary for maintaining a judiciary of the highest quality in order to ensure the continued administration of justice in the territory."
Breaking the figure down in more detailed terms, Hodge added that the judiciary's budget will use up four cents of every dollar that will be spent by the government during the upcoming fiscal year, with a majority of the funds going toward personnel services. Approximately $3.1 million would subsidize the salaries and corresponding fringe benefits for the Supreme Court's first set of employees, while the V.I. Superior Court will use another $20.3 million for its employees, he explained.
The courts have cut costs over the past fiscal year by eliminating some of their longstanding vacant positions, Hodge said.
The Supreme Court's budget — which totals about $7.3 million — also earmarks $500,000 for improvements to facilities leased in both districts. The court has 150 days to renovate a building leased in Crown Bay on St. Thomas before it begins paying rent to the V.I. Port Authority, Hodge explained.
When asked about the status of the lease, he said an agreement has already been negotiated and awaits final approval from the governor. Hodge described the proposed rent on the building — $371,000 per year at $22 per square foot — as "a bargain."
Another $450,000 is also budgeted for the implementation of an online appellate case-management system, Hodge said. The remainder of the Supreme Court's budget, some $3.2 million, will go toward general operating expenditures such as office supplies, furniture, utilities and equipment.
Hodge also outlined a proposed $26.5 million budget request for the Superior Court, which represents a 0.01 percent increase over the $26.4 million appropriated for FY 2007.
In addition to personnel services, the court's budget also includes $372,501 for salary increases, with $1,500 earmarked for each employee. The remaining $6.2 million will cover other operating expenses, Hodge said.
While senators did ask a few questions relating to the operations of the two courts — which Hodge said he hopes to consolidate under one administrative office eventually — no concerns were raised about the proposed budget request.
However, Hodge said the court might experience a potential funding shortfall of $510,447 during FY 2008, since the governor has proposed a three-percent increase in employer contributions paid into the Government Employees' Retirement System. While Hodge said the courts might be able to absorb the additional costs, he also asked senators to consider adding the funding to the judiciary's budget during the upcoming budget-markup process.
Present during Thursday's meeting were Sens. Liston Davis, Carlton "Ital" Dowe, Juan Figueroa-Serville, Louis P. Hill, Neville James and Terrence "Positive" Nelson.
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