In what has become a staple of his annual budget pitch to lawmakers, Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. again pushed for state funding to cover the cost of parking for court employees in Wilmington.
Strine used more than half of his prepared remarks on Wednesday to ask members of the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee for the fourth time to back his demand that nearly half of all judicial branch employees no longer be forced to pay for downtown parking, which costs about $1,700 per year.
Past requests have been met with sympathy from some members of the 12-person panel, but Strine and legislators have so far been unable to reach a consensus on how best to address the proposal. The current proposal would involve purchasing a block of spots in a downtown parking garage and then distributing cards to court employees to use for work purposes only.
Strine in recent years has framed parking as an issue of fairness for court workers, the majority of whom make less than $32,000 in salary each year. However, Strine used his hour-long appearance on Wednesday afternoon to stress the toll it has taken on the court’s operations, citing high turnover and low morale among court workers in New Castle County.
“None of what we do for the public can be secure in the future if we don’t address the needs of our workers,” Strine told the 12-member panel. “That’s our No. 1 priority.”
Strine cited court statistics that show disproportionate turnover rates for court employees in New Castle County, compared to those in Sussex and Kent counties. For the Delaware Superior Court, 86 percent of all employee separations in 2017 occurred in New Castle County, and departures from the Delaware Court of Common Pleas registered at about 70 percent, Strine said.
According the court statistics, a majority of court security officers, investigative officers and prothonotary employees in Wilmington work two jobs, and Strine said that for most workers, the money they spend on parking comes directly out of living expenses that would otherwise be spent on rent, groceries and bills.
The result, Strine said, is that many workers leave for higher-paying jobs, creating the constant need to hire and train new workers.
“If the Judiciary is a priority for our state—and we think you think it is—then surely half our workforce has to be a priority if we’re going to serve the public well,” he said.
In past years, lawmakers have bristled at the request, citing concerns that court employees in Wilmington would receive a benefit not available to other state employees who work outside of the city. But Strine has argued that nearly all legislative and executive branch employees have access to free parking, while Wilmington workers are stuck with an expense exclusive to the city.
However, four Joint Finance Committee members voiced support Wednesday for Strine’s proposal, which was the product of talks with the committee.
“You’ve spent a lot of time; you’ve spent a lot of effort reaching out to us. And I think you’ve made a very good case,” Joint Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Melanie George Smith, D-Bear, told Strine.
Rep. James Johnson, D-New Castle, said he was deeply skeptical of the idea when Strine first pitched it four years ago. But on Wednesday, Johnson was crediting the chief justice with starting to change his mind.
“You have me leaning toward that way now,” Johnson said.
Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover, and Rep. Michael Ramone, R-Middle Run Valley, also expressed positive thoughts on the measure.
Strine still faced some pushback from Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, who raised concerns about parking contracts and securing the cards that would be needed to enact the plan.
“You’ll have to pay for it one way or the other,” he said in a tense exchange.
Gov. John Carney has proposed a $1,000 pay raise for all state employees, but his recommended budget did not address the lingering parking issue. Strine said he was generally pleased with Carney’s plan, and the judiciary would be seeking only a “modest” markup on the governor’s proposal.
The governor’s proposed budget did, however, embrace Strine’s request for two additional vice chancellors on the Delaware Court of Chancery, and it recommended the restoration of $540,000 to fund legal services for the poor. That total represented a 10 percent cut from the $600,000 in state funding before lawmakers eliminated the appropriations during last year’s budget crisis.
Strine is also seeking substantial funding in the coming years to build two new Family Court buildings in Kent and Sussex County. Carney’s capital budget recommended about half of what Strine had requested for the upcoming fiscal year.