Separate but equal: New agreement gives Yakima judges financial freedom

Separate but equal: New agreement gives Yakima judges financial freedom
Yakima County Superior Court Judge Ruth Reukauf shakes hands with county commissioners.
YAKIMA, Wash. -- An agreement Tuesday establishes protocols, that not only reaffirm the roles of our county's branches of government, but gives the Yakima County court system freedom to spend its money without commissioner approval.

"It's a very good day," said Yakima County Superior Court Judge Ruth Reukauf.

This agreement ends four months of work, which followed a letter sent by Yakima County judges to commissioners expressing concern with strained budgets and continued cuts.

"The commissioners had some policies and procedures that infringed on the rights of the judges," said Yakima County Court Consultant Harold Delia.

The court system now has the right to spend its money without permission from county commissioners.

Yakima County judges were tired of budget cuts that were hurting the courts.

"The courts are no longer as they have been in the past: influenced or affected by the budget issues concerning the prosecutors and the assigned counsel," said Yakima County Commissioner Mike Leita.

They claimed commissioners were treating the courts as a department they controlled, rather than the separate judicial branch defined by the Constitution.

"That was key to us," said Delia. "We need to be able to administer the courts."

The big concern was that if there was no deal, the issue could wind up in court.

A similar case continues to be fought in Grays Harbor County and the cost of that fight is piling up there.

"It averts a legal battle that would've come at taxpayer expense," said Leita.

For the first time ever, Yakima County's court system will have its own reserve fund, which court administrators say could help prevent layoffs in the future.

"Money I save in 2012 I can roll over to 2013," said Delia.

That money used to go to back to the general fund and would be lost to the courts.

This agreement sets the stage to re-hire a court commissioner who had been laid off. A move that can now be done without commissioner approval.

"This is going to be something the rest of the state is looking at," said Reukauf. "And I'm very proud to be a the forefront."

All parties involved seem happy to settle this issue outside of the courtroom.

Commissioners agreed to put about half a million dollars in the court's reserve fund.

That's how much the courts saved in recent years that Yakima County applied to the general fund.