Clerk’s office to maintain schedule

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 2, 2005

With a $250 million deficit and repeated budget cuts, many state offices and agencies are feeling the burden of heavier workloads and fewer staff members – including circuit clerk offices around the state.

Because of staff and workload problems, Alabama Chief Justice Drayton Nabers Jr. issued a memorandum to all circuit clerk offices authorizing them to close their doors to the public for up to 10 hours per week.

“Due to budget reductions resulting from severe strain in the state general fund, staffing for circuit clerks’ offices has been reduced by about 25 percent,” Nabers stated in the memo. “In order to continue providing quality service to litigants, attorneys and the public, it is imperative that each office operate in the most efficient manner possible.”

Nabers said he had consulted with trial court officials and decided “allowing staffs some period of time daily to concentrate on duties without distraction” would be the best method.

“Accordingly, as Chief Justice, I hereby authorize circuit and district clerks to close their offices to telephone calls and other direct services to the public up to ten hours per week,” he stated. He said, however, that the decision of when and how often to close would be at the discretion of the circuit clerk in each county.

Marengo County Circuit Clerk Rusty Nichols said his office will maintain the same hours it has had, which means closing only an hour a day – from noon to 1 p.m.

“We’re not closing for 10 hours a week right now,” he said. “We’re going to keep things as they are and try to keep our heads above water.”

Nichols admitted his staff was feeling the strain of budget cuts and staff reduction, noting that his office currently operates with four staff members.

“These ladies work hard, they haven’t had a raise in three years, and it’s harder for them to take leave,” he said. “If anyone is out it leaves the office with three people, meaning the workload really picks up, and if they don’t take their leave by the end of the year, they lose it.”

Nichols said the days get long and tempers short sometimes, but commended his employees on keeping a good spirit and doing what is necessary to make sure the work is done.

“They’ve turned up their sleeves and put their noses into this work,” he said.

Despite their best efforts, though, Nichols admitted a backlog of work and said the women in his office are doing their best during that one hour each day to catch up as much as possible.

“We’re going to see if we can continue to get it done with only closing for one hour each day. A little later we will reevaluate things and decide if we need to do anything different,” he said.

Unfortunately, Nichols said, the outlook is fairly bleak, unless the legislature can come up with some way to increase revenue.

“The state operates off two funds, the special education trust fund and the general fund,” he explained. “All our monies come from the general fund, ad do most state agencies. They are currently $250 million in the red as a deficit. They’ve got to come up with some way to bring more money in.”

He said most legislators are talking about raising taxes, but Nichols said he didn’t think that was a good idea.

“No one wants to pay more taxes, I sure don’t, but something has to be done,” he said.

In the meantime, Nichols asks that the public be patient with him and his staff.

“If people could just understand the situation we’re in – things will take a little longer, but we will get it done and with the same quality they’re used to,” he said.

He said that quality is what prompted the letter from the chief justice, because not everything coming to the state office was accurate.

“Anytime you’re trying to do three things at once, it’s difficult to make sure everything is accurate,” he said.

Other local circuit clerk offices will maintain their hours for now, but have not made a final decision regarding the closings.

Greene County Circuit Clerk Johnnie Knott is out on medical leave. Etta Edwards, who is running the office in the interim, said she had just received the letter from the justice and had not had a chance to share the information with Knott.

“I’m waiting to speak to her before making a decision,” she said. “I don’t know yet what we’ll do.”

Sumter County Circuit Clerk Odessa Mac was out of the office and Perry County Circuit Clerk Mary Moore was unavailable as was the Hale County Circuit Clerk.