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The county budget crisis has kindled a debate about whether the George E. McDonald Hall of Justice in Alameda should stay open. Alameda County supervisors are expected to approve a balanced budget Friday, but only after making dramatic, across-the-board cuts to deal with a $113 million shortfall. Countywide, the board is poised to wipe out 340 posts, including vacant ones. On Monday the district attorney, public defender and sheriff made pleas for more funding to avoid actual layoffs and offered cost-saving suggestions. Supervisors directed the county administrator to research closing the courthouse after Public Defender Diane Bellas and Sheriff Charles Plummer argued that shuttering the branch court would save significant money. In an interview later, Bellas said that the two-story courthouse is a luxury the county and the court can no longer afford. “Have you seen the courthouse?” Bellas asked. “It’s huge. All that to serve one judge and one commissioner seems to be excessive when I see all of us being asked to make service cuts that are mandated.” Bellas said the county is in store for more budget cuts for the next few years, and that her office would save $143,000 if the courthouse was closed. Plummer said the closure would save his department $461,362 annually. Closing the Alameda courthouse would be complicated and require a joint effort by the court and the county. The prosecutor, sheriff and public defender personnel who work there are county employees. Other workers, including clerks, a commissioner, a judge and a retired judge sitting by assignment, are employees of the court. The county owns the building, but the state �� which runs the court �� has long-term plans to take over the Alameda courthouse, as well as other court facilities across the state. Supervising Judge Jeffrey Allen, Commissioner Thomas Rasch and retired Marin County Judge Peter Smith, who is sitting by assignment, preside at the Alameda courthouse. Presiding Judge Harry Sheppard said no one has talked to him in depth about closing the courthouse. The judge recently had lunch with Supervisor Alice Lai-Bitker, but they discussed it very briefly, he said. And, he added, closing the courthouse raises several logistical problems. “They don’t look at the whole equation,” Sheppard said Tuesday. If the Alameda courthouse closes, the three judicial officers who work there and the cases they hear would have to move to Oakland. There is no room in the Wiley W. Manuel courthouse, and moving those cases to another court may increase security costs. Plus, the court would have to find a way to absorb the court staff in Alameda, the PJ said. One dissenting voice came from District Attorney Thomas Orloff, who said closing the Alameda courthouse would be a disservice to Alameda residents. “There are costs to the city, although the county saves a little money,” he said. Alameda police would be forced to waste time in Oakland courthouses when they have to testify and officers would have to drive all the way to Oakland to charge cases. Those problems would increase overtime costs to the city, he said. Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson, who spoke out against closing the courthouse at Tuesday’s supervisors meeting, could not be reached for comment. Allen, the supervising judge, said the PJ told him not to comment on the issue. Bellas said Oakland’s courts successfully absorbed Berkeley’s criminal caseload, and Alameda has fewer criminal cases than Berkeley. Alameda’s criminal felony jury trials, which require police testimony, are already heard in Oakland. Usually there is just a commissioner and a judge presiding in Alameda �� the retired judge is only there temporarily, Bellas said. “This process has made it clear that if we are to dig ourselves out of this hole we have to think globally,” she said. Meanwhile, the PD, DA, sheriff and probation chief made dramatic public pleas to county supervisors at Monday’s meeting in hopes of avoiding layoffs. Although County Administrator Susan Muranishi found $16 million in temporary funding that allowed those departments to postpone severe cuts, some layoffs are still possible. Bellas’ voice faltered when she told the board that she may have to lay off one investigator. Bellas said she was able to avoid other layoffs because two attorneys resigned. To save more money, Bellas and her second-in-command, Harold Friedman, will assume chief investigator Trevor Patterson’s duties after he retires in August. In emotional speeches, Orloff and Bellas both quoted Bible passages and talked briefly about their faith. Orloff said at stake are up to 30 of his employees, and added that he will slash diversion programs that are available to welfare fraud offenders. Plummer said he may have to lay off 26 civilian workers unless the county gives him an additional $1.8 million in funding. “Today we are being raped, and I don’t know who to blame,” the sheriff said. The department is making plans to cut a range of services, including allowing judges to have personal deputies. Instead, his agency would dispatch officers to courtrooms as needed. He also raised the possibility of leasing the North County jail, which was closed in 2002 to save money. Early on, the probation department predicted that it would have to lay off employees. Now it will be able to absorb displaced workers in other programs, said probation spokeswoman Nina Ramsey.

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