Judge, Supervisors Take Issue with Term “Slush Fund”

rosenbergThis morning the Woodland Daily Democrat had to backtrack off reports that Judges’ benefit would remain in place for another two years.  The  Democrat reported on Thursday that it is a done deal and that the county will have to continue to pay the benefit for the next two years.  “By not acting before today, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors has committed taxpayers to providing $80,324 in additional benefits to Yolo Superior Court judges over the next two years.”

However, the Vanguard learned just before publication that in fact that report was premature.  The Vanguard received a letter from County Administrator Patrick Blacklock to William Vickrey which would preserve the county’s ability to terminate supplemental judicial benefits by filing just before the 180 period expired.

In the Democrat’s defense, Assistant CAO Pat Leary was not apprised of the situation and County Counsel Robyn Drivon could not legally disclose the information since the letter had not yet been drafted.

Supervisor Matt Rexroad has been fighting the judicial benefit for some time, calling the $40,000 supplemental benefits to Yolo County Judges a “slush fund.”  Mr. Rexroad indicated that while $40,000 may be a drop in the bucket considering the operating budget of $271 million and the deficit, he said it could translate to health care for one of Yolo County’s indigent, or salary for one of the 48 people who lost their jobs earlier this month.

Furthermore while Mr. Rexroad appreciates the efforts of Judge Rosenberg to save money, he said that this is not the time to be handing out bonuses and said he continuance of what he refers to as the judges’ “slush fund” will only be delayed because the Administrative Office of the Courts controls the study and it is in judges’ best interest to prolong its release to the Legislature.

Meanwhile both Judge Dave Rosenberg and Supervisor Jim Provenza called the use of the term “slush fund” unfortunate.

The Enterprise reported that Judge Rosenberg said, “it’s not just petty cash” and continued, that Yolo County Judges have to spend it on health and life insurance or retirement.  “You can’t just pocket it.”  Judge Rosenberg added, “‘Slush fund’ is an unfortunate use of language.”

As though somehow that changes the fact that Judges are getting an extra benefit from a body that they do not even work for.

According to the Enterprise, “Supervisor Jim Provenza of Davis called the term a ‘mischaracterization.’ If you’re going to call a judge’s benefit package a slush fund, he said, then you’d have to do the same for supervisors and department directors.”

However, Mr. Rexroad pointed out that while supervisors and directors are county employees, Judges are not.

“They’re not our employees,” he said. “If they have a compensation problem, they need to deal with the state Legislature.”

The problem at this point is that the Judges appear to be trying to delay the implementation of the cut in the benefit.  The task force appears to be dragging its feet knowing it can at least forestall the inevitable by another two years due some archaic features in the law.  Meanwhile, the county is reeling fiscally and cutting everyone else’s benefit and well-paid and protected judges are fighting for their extra perks.  At least that is how I see it and it appears Supervisor Rexroad.

But Judge Rosenberg is instead arguing that we need to give the task force time to do its job, when they have really had several years already.  He is quoted in the Enterprise saying, “Getting a preliminary report to the Legislature by September 2011 ‘is very realistic.”  And he added, one of the recommendations almost certainly will end the counties’ payments.

“I’m confident that the end result … will be the counties will not be paying judicial benefits when it’s all said and done,” the Judge said. “But that’s being worked on.”

However, for Supervisor Rexroad, that is not good enough and he believes that nothing is holding up the task force but itself.  “Let’s transition right now,” Supervisor Rexroad said. “Let’s end it. What’s prohibiting us from ending it?” 

The Enterprise then quotes Supervisor Provenza saying “ultimately, the state needs to pay for its employees. No other county has ended benefits since 2008 when a new law started allowing it. Being the first could ‘put Yolo County in a bad light with judges statewide,’ making it harder to attract talent to the local bench.”

“A lot of good attorneys make a lot more money than our judges make now,” Supervisor Provenza said. “Cutting benefits further would make Yolo County less attractive.”

Right, cutting $4000 in benefits is going to make Yolo County less attractive.  I just do not buy that.  The fact of the matter is a judgeship is going to earn an individual a lot less money than being an attorney.  $4000 in extra benefits is not going to change that.  Those who wish to become a judge, do so for reasons other than monetary.  The county just cannot afford any extra benefits at this time and it is irresponsible both of the judicial council to drag its feet and Judge Rosenberg to continue to try to get blood out of the county turnip.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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14 thoughts on “Judge, Supervisors Take Issue with Term “Slush Fund””

  1. David M. Greenwald

    They get like $170,000 in health care, the county covers about $40,000 of that (between all the judges). The county’s contribution is a supplemental, but the problem is that the county is not their employer and cannot afford to pay it just as they have had to cut costs with their own employees..

    BTW, it won’t end tomorrow, it ends in 180 days.

  2. roger bockrath

    Does anybody here know how much Superior Court judges are paid in addition to “supplemental” payments for health care, etc.? If judges are employed by the State of California, why is the County of Yolo contributing to their health care costs?

  3. Neutral

    This is a both bogus and irrelevant argument over a benefit paid to judges amounting to .0002% of the County’s budget, which is currently being analyzed by the AoC, which is required to report within 180 days. Meanwhile Rexroad has managed – in one small outburst of feigned anger – to get maximum coverage here, in the Daily Democrat, and of course the Enterprise. Classic case of distraction worked to perfection.

    Nicely done Max.

    [Note: Applicable State Law is [url]here[/url].]

  4. JakeDorsey

    For the record, David:

    Reporter Erin Tracy had no chance to know about the Blacklock letter before publication, which you state, and I appreciate.

    However, you were lucky enough to learn about the letter because you texted a county supervisor at 5 a.m., after reading our story, and the supervisor gave it to you. Erin found out once she came into work and started catching up.

    We don’t take offense here at The Democrat about the idea of backpedling, or that it was “premature”, but it’s not what we’re doing and that’s not how it went. Print deadlines dictated Erin get me the story before Blacklock crafted his letter. We were trying to catch up, and we hope you’ll also keep tabs on our story in tomorrow’s paper, too.

    Thanks David.

  5. David M. Greenwald

    “However, you were lucky enough to learn about the letter because you texted a county supervisor at 5 a.m., after reading our story, and the supervisor gave it to you.”

    It is true I texted him at 5 am, because I thought he had given me the full story the night before and was shocked when I read the Daily Democrat in the am and find out they were reporting something different (indeed the opposite) from what he told me. It turns out, timing was not your friend on this story and I was fortunate to get the full story before going to publication early on Thursday.

    In terms of my choice of adjectives, I didn’t mean to imply backpeddling was a negative, just that it had changed.

  6. JakeDorsey

    No hard feelings, David! I’m jealous you’re functional at 5 a.m.; only Jim is awake and capable at that time of day around here (unless we’re called in early). Thanks again.

  7. Superfluous Man

    David,

    “The fact of the matter is a judgeship is going to earn an individual a lot less money than being an attorney.”

    It is a common misconception that most lawyers are extraordinarily wealthy, they aren’t. I think California Superior Court judges make approximately 170K annually. Accepting this judgeship would result in a salary increase or wash for most lawyers, not quite the drastic pay cut that you and Provenza assert.

    According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a lawyer in the US is 110K. Furthermore, the BLS states that the “middle half of the occupation earned between $74,980 and $163,320.” That would mean that the California Superior Court judges are earning in the top twenty-five percent of all lawyers in the country, the highest salaries earned.

    This data is not based solely on the salaries of California lawyers, but I think you’ll find that most lawyers in CA are not making more than 170K a year. The jobs that pay far greater than 170k are the exception, not the rule.

    Accepting the judgeship can result in less money, it depends on the career the lawyer is leaving. Working as a public interest attorney (ie legal aid): just about no chance. Working in local, state, or federal government as an attorney: the rule is no, but there are exceptions (I would estimate 1% are making greater than 170K). Working in small to medium size firms: could be, but I’m pretty sure most are making around or less than 170K. Working for the extremely selective and few large firms: yeah, that lawyer would be making significantly less money by accepting the judgeship, seeing as first year associates make slightly less than 170K (those paying market rate anyway).

  8. Superfluous Man

    Provenza said, “Being the first could ‘put Yolo County in a bad light with judges statewide,’ making it harder to attract talent to the local bench.”
    &
    “A lot of good attorneys make a lot more money than our judges make now,” Supervisor Provenza said. “Cutting benefits further would make Yolo County less attractive.”

    I call BS. He’s talking about a small minority of lawyers (those making well above 170K), the vast majority of which are working in the private sector for large firms. The government will never match the salaries these firms pay, not to mention the epic bonuses they shell out, EVER. In other words, those “talented” attorney’s Provenza claims the County won’t be able to tantalize to the bench, because accepting the position would reduces their pay, will never be motivated to accept judgeships on the basis of monetary gain. SCOTUS justices make less than most of the “talented” lawyers I believe Provenza is referring to.

    I find his comment that salary deters talent from the County position of Superior Court judge funny. It’s widely known that attracting young talent, recent law graduates from top law schools, to public sector jobs is a far greater problem than that of attracting talent to judgeships. When a graduate from a top law school has 100K+ debt and the option of a starting salary at or around 160K, do you think they are going to take the 50K job at the DA or PD’s Office-even if they would prefer a public sector job? Statistically speaking, they do not.

    It’s a problem and a far greater one than getting qualified judges to the bench. Anyway, these Superior Court judges are appointed by the Governor, so I wonder how much “talent” is weighed in relation to political loyalty and connections.

    Also, is Provenza implying that Yolo County is or has had a problem attracting talent to the Yolo County Superior Court? I agree with you David, that little bit of cash isn’t going to deter talent from this judgeship anymore than the supper wealthy talent is already.

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