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The Street administration and leaders of the Philadelphia court system met yesterday to work out a $9 million difference between the budget proposed last week by Mayor John F. Street and the funding level requested by officials of the First Judicial District. When Street proposed a $106.4 million fiscal year 2005 budget for the First Judicial District, he was effectively calling for a 7 percent cut into the current Philadelphia court budget, which was set at $115 million for fiscal year 2004. FJD administrators and the mayor’s budget director said yesterday that they were seeking to resolve the difference between the figures proposed for fiscal year 2005 by the mayor and court leaders. Yesterday, Common Pleas Court President Judge Frederica A. Massiah-Jackson and other court representatives met with Street, City Solicitor Pedro Ramos and city budget officials. “We took the first steps in trying to reach an understanding to see if we can agree on a budget that will not cripple the courts and the court services we provide,” said Massiah-Jackson, who has served as president judge since 2001. The FJD had submitted a 2005 budget request for $115 million last fall, Massiah-Jackson said. Municipal President Judge Louis J. Presenza said yesterday’s meeting was “very positive,” with everyone agreeing to work hard to achieve a compromise. “We’re willing to communicate and negotiate, and hopefully, there could be an amicable resolution to the issue — something both sides can live with,” Presenza said. “Otherwise, we’ll have to look at what our other options are.” It used to be that the city and the FJD abided by a “zero-growth/zero-reduction” agreement implemented by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court when it took over the FJD’s management in 1991 following serious budgetary and backlog problems. Under the agreement, the FJD’s budget didn’t increase or decrease except when the city asked the courts to take on additional projects or city employees received a raise, explained Court Administrator Joseph A. Cairone. The agreement officially ended in 1996 when the Supreme Court restored autonomy to the city’s courts, but the arrangement continued on an informal basis until two years ago, court administrators said. In fiscal years 2002, 2003 and 2004, the FJD’s budget was effectively reduced, Cairone said. There were budget increases during those years for inflationary expenses and employee raises, but “in real dollars we got less,” Cairone explained. Two years ago, the mayor’s office proposed a FJD budget that was $4 million less than what court officials wanted for FY 2003. When negotiations were unsuccessful, the FJD filed a lawsuit seeking a court order to force the city turn over the funds the courts had requested. The suit was settled in the spring of 2003, and the two sides compromised on a budget of $110 million, Cairone said. For fiscal year 2004, in which the court is currently operating, the FJD submitted a request for $119 million, and the mayor proposed a budget that was about $7 million less, Cairone said. A compromise was reached at $115 million. City Budget Director Rob Dubow acknowledged that negotiations between the FJD administrators and budget officials were no longer based in the “zero-growth/zero-reduction” agreement of yesteryear. “It doesn’t really work for us when we’re facing spending increases in other areas of the budget,” Dubow said. He explained that the city had been searching for places to save to counter growing pension and health benefit costs. Under its charter, the city must balance its budget each year. “We did some pretty harsh things to some city agencies because we need to find savings,” Dubow said, noting the city would also be cutting its subsidy for the Art Museum, reducing the number of recreation centers, and possibly closing engine and ladder companies. “A number of things are pretty painful,” Dubow said. “If we don’t cut for the courts, then the cuts for everyone else have to be that much bigger.” Presenza understands the city’s facing a deficit, he said, but the proposed cut for the First Judicial District was “not realistic.” “There’s a lot of things we have no control over that we are mandated to provide and can’t cut,” Presenza said. “And you still have to operate an effective and efficient court system that’s fair to all sides.” On May 3, Massiah-Jackson, Cairone and Deputy Court Administrator Kevin Cross are scheduled to testify before the City Council on the FJD’s budget. “Hopefully, when we get before the City Council, we can tell them we’ve got a final number we’ve agreed to,” Cairone said, “and hopefully it’ll pass.”

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