“It's just another hit on Taft,” Councilman Randy Miller said.
The decision to close down Taft's courthouse for all criminal matters, effectively shutting down the court for all but traffic infractions and some civil matters, continues to reverberate through the community.
Tuesday night, the Taft City Council heard from the the people who made that decision and saw the faces of some of the people who will be most affected by the imminent closure, which will take effect on Sept. 9.
Terry McNally, the executive officer of the Kern County Court system, Judge C
raig Phillips, who has presided over the Taft court, and a group of the clerks who will either lose their jobs or be forced to go to work elsewhere in the county, were at the council meeting.
McNally, who last week met with Taft Chief of Police Ed Whiting and City Manager Craig Jones, told the council the county's courts just ran out of money.
"As we crunched the numbers...we came to the conclusion in early March that we were facing some serious funding issues," McNally said
"We just got to the point where there were no other options," McNally said. "It has not been an easy decision...we have done everything we can to squeeze the blood out of every turnip."
That did little to soothe the disappointed council.
"It's just another hit on Taft," Councilman Randy Miller said. "People in far away places thinking they know what's best for Taft."
Councilman Dave Noerr said the court cuts, coming on the effects of the AB109 prison realignment, are straining local law enforcement – and his patience.
"The positive effects all seem to be on the bad guys, the dirtbags who victimize the law abiding citizens," he said.
Orchel Krier said he was disappointed that the council wasn't informed ahead of time.
McNally said he underestimated the speed with which the news would be spread by social media.
"I'll have to compress my communications plans in the future," McNally said.
While the first official news of the closure came on Tuesday, employees at the Taft court were notified on March 22, and some discussed the closure that evening on social media.
Those employees – up to 11 of them – will be impacted. Some will lose their jobs, but others will have the option to "bump" other employees through a collective bargaining agreement and move into jobs in other areas if they wish.
Seven of the employees attended Tuesday's meeting but did not talk.
They did, however stand, at the request of Mayor Paul Linder, who asked them to show the human cost of the the court closure.
McNally said that was the toughest part.
"It was the most challenging and difficult part of all this," he told the council.
He said he felt many would rather quit than move.
Judge Craig Phillips, who presides over the Taft court, said he too was caught off guard when the decision came down.
He missed the judges' meeting where the decision was made and, speaking for himself as not as a judge, said he disagreed. He felt the court should have continued to trim costs all over the county.
"My opinion is they should have continued to do what they were doing," he said.
He preferred "death by a thousand cuts as opposed to amputating a hand."
Phillips offered any hope that Taft's court could reopen any time soon.
The only way it will happen is if the tax picture gets a whole lot better," he said.
"I don't want to raise any false hopes," he said. "We are at least a year away from having any additional revenue come this way."
Miller expressed dismay at the lack of public outcry about the court closure, and that led to discussion eventually leading to a decision for the council to send a letter to elected representatives in Sacramento urging them to restore funding to the courts.
The council heard from Whiting, who along with McNally, discussed some of the steps being explored to ease the burden created for Taft Police when they have to drive 45 minutes to appear in court or meet with a deputy district attorney.
Those steps include teleconferencing or video conferencing when and if possible, continued transportation for inmates in the Taft jail to Lamont for their court appearance and other steps, but it will still cause some problems for the police.
"There's no way to get around it," Whiting said.
One major effect is an anticipated increase in FTAs – failures to appear – because of the problems getting transportation to court in Lamont.
That is going to lead to more warrants issued by the courts and more no-bail warrants, which mean people who fail to appear will be arrested and held in custody until they appear in court.
That will further tax the county jail system.