Court hammered by cuts

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Ellen Cook will be the first to admit she didn’t vote for Gov. Bob Riley’s tax increase. On Monday, Cook learned she no longer has a job with the state because of inadequate funding, which the tax increase would have solved.

Rusty Nichols, circuit clerk for Marengo County, received an e-mail from the Administrative Office of Courts informing him that Cook would be laid off because of funding problems in the state.

Cook has worked in the state court system for more than 14 years and during a tenure with Judge Claude Neilsen more than eight years ago, state government suspended all trials.

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This time, the state has done something. In fact, Cook isn’t the only loss for Nichols and his office. Earlier this year, the state put a hiring freeze on the court system and when Nichols lost Barbara Raymond &045; who handled small claims and district civil cases &045; the state only allowed Nichols to hire a temporary employee.

In her role at the circuit clerk’s office, Cook handled what Nichols called a "very big workload." She helped prepare warrants, handled all criminal misdemeanor cases and prepared the paperwork for traffic ticket cases. And that’s not all.

According to directions from the state, Nov. 26 will be the last day Cook can work on the state’s payroll. And when that happens, she doesn’t know how the office will operate.

One thing the circuit clerk’s office will not be is boring after the cuts take effect. Along with the position vacated when Raymond left, the two positions usually handle close to 4,000 cases a year.

After Nov. 26, those cases will have to be split among the remaining three employees in the circuit clerk’s office. As for the damage that could be done from the loss, Nichols has no real way of measuring yet. He has, however, heard about other counties and what they’ve faced in light of the cuts.

In Morgan County, where cuts took effect, the clerk’s office normally processed a divorce case in two or three months.

In Marengo County, where divorce numbers are high (143 so far this year) that scenario could become a reality. Then again, Nichols said he hasn’t had time to sift through the delegation of new job duties in the office.

Fight isn’t over

While Nichols understands the rules of the Administrative Office of Courts, he said he’ll work hard to keep Cook on board. In fact, he said he already has found money to keep her through the end of the year.

And Nichols said he hasn’t stopped with that short-term solution.

Ken Tucker, a member of the Marengo County Commission, said everyone on the commission understands the plight of the circuit clerk’s office.

While the courts have struggled with adequate funding, Tucker said most agencies in the county have struggled &045; including the county.

The commission meets again on Nov. 13, and Tucker did not know what would come of the meeting or if financial help can be given to the clerk’s office.

Meanwhile, Cook said she’ll wait and hope.