Working for the Finney County District Court as an accounting technician and then a court clerk, Christine Blake had to maintain a second job at Walmart for eight years, a problem that many employees of the Kansas Judicial Branch still contend with statewide.
Though Blake, who has since become the district court’s chief clerk, no longer has to work a second job, she said many in the clerk’s office still do — the result of inadequate pay increases, coupled with rising benefit and health insurance costs that have persisted for more than a decade. As a result, the KJB continues to struggle in its efforts to recruit and retain employees, a problem that likely will continue to fester in the state’s dismal financial climate.
“They need to bring us up to a fair market value, and then I think the Legislature needs to guarantee some sort of cost of living wage each year,” Blake said. “I think that sounds reasonable, having been in the system for 30-plus years.”
Blake said that of the 13 staffers working for the district court, as many as four work a second job, while another currently is looking for one.
“I enjoy my job. I want to keep my job,” she said. “But there are some times when you know in the private sector you could earn quite a bit more than what you do here.”
Blake added that most people in the clerk’s office share that sentiment, and many employees have been lost to the prospect of higher wages somewhere else.
“It’s hard to watch because most of them will tell you, ‘I wanted to stay, but I couldn’t afford to,’” she said.
In 2010, a court clerk in the second classification of a four-tier system at the highest pay grade, which typically takes eight years to achieve, took home an annual average income of $22,079 a year, according to the KJB.
In 2017, a clerk in the same position takes home an annual average of $19,238, a $2,841 reduction mostly resultant of an increase in insurance costs. These numbers do not include out-of-pocket expenses such as visits to the doctor.
In 2016, the KJB used a State Justice Institute Grant to contract with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to conduct an employee classification and compensation study. The study found that more than one-quarter of KJB positions have starting salaries below the federal poverty level for a family of four, and every job classification is below market by at least 4.6 percent and as much as 22.2 percent.
The same study found that nearly one-third of KJB employees work more than one job to make ends meet while many more are looking for another job outside of the KJB, which exceeds Kansas’ state average by 24 percent.
“I want everybody to know we do a lot of good work for the state, and I think everybody wants a good strong judiciary where they can get their disputes resolved quickly and fairly by good people who are well trained and who want to be in that job,” said Wendel Wurst, chief district judge of the 25th Judicial District.
The KJB annually decides 385,166 cases every year in a state with a population of 2.9 million, and every day the KJB collects approximately $700,000 for people and companies party to litigation, crime victims, state agencies, and county and state general funds.
Wurst said there currently are 49 positions for judges, clerks and court service offices in the 25th Judicial District, and that those positions have been filled 55 times since 2011.
He said that two weeks ago, a “well trained, well experienced” court services officer left for a better paying job, and last week the deputy clerk in Kearny County took a new job with the Kearny County Sheriff’s Office for better salary and insurance benefits.
“This is a statewide problem,” Wurst said. “Everybody’s facing the same sort of situation. We get good folks hired. We get them trained. We get them competent. And then we lose them. And you can’t blame them by any means, to better their lives and their families while making more money elsewhere. It’s just a tough situation.”
Judges like Wurst also are affected by the paucity in state funding to the KJB, which accounts for less than 1 percent of the state’s total budget. The KJB is annually allocated $133 million by the state, and 95 percent of that is used for staff salaries. The remaining 5 percent is used for training programs, software and technology.
As of Jan. 1, a study by the NCSC determined that without adjusting for cost of living, Kansas district judge pay ranks 50th in the nation out of 51 rankings that include the District of Columbia. The average district judge in Kansas makes $120,037. The only state ranked below Kansas is New Mexico, where the average district judge makes $118,384.
By a similar measure, neighboring Colorado is ranked 18th in the country. The average district judge there makes $159,694 annually. Nebraska is 19th, where the average district judge makes $159,077. Missouri is 28th, where the average district judge makes $148,263. And Oklahoma is 43rd, where the average district judge makes $131,835 annually.
And while those same neighboring states have seen significant incremental increases in judge salaries since 2011, salaries in Kansas have continuously flatlined.
“What we need is money, badly, obviously, and in the grand scheme of things we’re not a very big fish,” said District Judge Robert Frederick, who has been on the bench since 2001. He said that as an attorney in private practice, he made roughly $45,000 more than he does now.
“The people we need to attract to these positions are capable of earning anywhere from $150,000 to $250,000 a year,” he said. “That’s why this is so dire. We can’t even get them to turn their heads to look at us.”
According to Frederick, applications for district judge openings in the 25th judicial district have started to decline significantly. He said that historically there have been 10 to 15 applications for judge openings, but the most recent opening attracted only six, adding that, “that was after the bar and members of the nominating commission had aggressively begged people from all over the western third of the state to apply.”
If the Legislature increased the judicial budget by $20 million, Fredrick said, it would bring Kansas judges’ salaries on a par with those in the surrounding states.
“It’s also my understanding that there would be a sufficient amount of money in that budget with regard to non-judicial employees, non-judges, to get them up to what they describe as market level,” he said.
Magistrate judges also are affected by the stagnating funds. An NCSC study found that a raise of more than 22 percent is needed to bring those salaries up to market level.
The same study found that 26 percent of magistrates who responded to the study indicated they are seeking employment beyond the judicial branch and gave compensation as the top reason.
According to Lisa Taylor, public information director of the KJB, the KJB has been requesting pay increases from the Legislature since at least the early 2000s.
Taylor added that in 2008, non-judge employees were approved to receive a 15.75-percent increase to be dispensed over three years in equal, incremental installments. She said funding for the first year was appropriated, but not for the remaining two years.
Local Court Administrator Kurtis Jacobs attributes that stagnant pay to the deterioration of the housing market and the subsequent recession in 2008.
“There wasn’t enough money,” Jacobs said. “But after things sort of evened out, they never went back and straightened it. They left that 10.5 percent off, so the staff and the judges have not received a raise in working on 10 years now, and that’s pretty significant.”
Taylor said two bills comprise all requested enhancements to the judicial branch budget for fiscal year 2018: House Bill 2365 and Senate Bill 190.
She said budget committee chairs indicated that those bills will be added to a “mega bill” that will include appropriations for the legislative and executive branches, adding that the House Appropriations Committee has put salary increases and enhancements to the side for consideration in the mega bill.
According to Taylor, on Friday the Senate Ways & Means Committee will hear recommendations from its subcommittee that considered the judicial branch budget request. The subcommittee recommends funding the KJB’s salary increases and enhancements.
“This really is the right thing to do for the good people who work for us, and it’s not like this is a new song that we’ve been singing,” Wurst said. “We’ve been in this situation for a long time. Hopefully, things are going to turn around. But I know the problems that the Legislature has. I just hope that they can recognize that it’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”