Judge Talbot's work to reform the 36th District Court could be hurt if unions don't cooperate. (David Coates / The Detroit News)
Slowly but steadily, Michigan Appeals Court Judge Michael J. Talbot is using his financial and organizational gavel to make significant improvements in the operations of Detroitís disorganized 36th District Court.
Talbot, the courtís special judicial administrator, recently paused to assess how the court has progressed, and concluded despite substantial progress in righting the courtís finances, thereís still a lot of work to do. And his job wonít be finished without more cooperation from the unions representing court employees.
Talbot was appointed earlier this year by the Michigan Supreme Court to take over the 36th District Court after a report from the National Center for State Courts found an appalling waste of tax dollars. The report detailed the deficit spending, mismanagement and over-staffing.
The 36th District Court is one of the busiest in the United States, processing over a million filings a year, and is one of the worst managed, with a deficit of $4.5 million.
In just a few months, Talbot has been able to balance the courtís budget by cutting $5.5 million in spending.
He has also put together reforms aimed at making the court more efficient, customer friendly and technologically advanced. Those have included streamlining the way traffic tickets are processed, allowing suburbanites to pay fines at their local district courts; and installing digital billboards that tell citizens which courtroom their cases are being heard instead of forcing them to stand in line to get the information from clerks.
A key task remains undone, however: reaching an agreement with the unions on long-term contracts. Unfortunately, the unions are stalling.
ďWe just have not heard from them for a while,Ē Talbot says, noting that the courtís largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME, is particularly reluctant to negotiate.
He had to declare recent talks at an impasse and imposed unilateral 10 percent wage cuts. Talbot also switched health care carriers, providing the same health coverage at a lower cost.
The unions must recognize that change is coming, and that their members will be better off if they cooperate on negotiating a rational contract. Thereís more job security in a court that operates with a balanced budget than in one where thereís a deficit.
Another item on Talbotís to-do list is an operational audit, where all of the departments will be reviewed by a special team that Talbot is establishing this month. Caseload management will be at the top of the list, but every department ó from finance to IT ó will be studied to determine how operations can be improved.
ďThese are the boring things but they go toward delivering better services. It takes time,Ē Talbot says.
The Appeals Court judge is doing his job well, but he canít stay on indefinitely. There is no timetable for his departure but it certainly could be expedited and smoothed out with more cooperation.