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Courts being hit hard

BY REGINA ZILBERMINTS | NOVEMBER 11, 2009 7:20 AM

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Employees at the Johnson County Courthouse are bracing for furloughs, potential layoffs, and yet another slash in funding — something they say will further affect an already struggling justice system.

Iowa courthouses will close their doors for 10 days between December and June as part of their plan to cut 10 percent from the judicial branch’s budget.

The move, announced Tuesday, will save approximately $4.1 million out of a total of $16 million that officials must cut. Top officials have yet to release the rest of their plan, but with 95 percent of the budget devoted to personnel, local officials fear more lay-offs are coming.

The 10 days of unpaid leave will apply to each of the judicial branch’s 1,935 employees statewide. And the closures will only increase pressure on an already overworked clerk of courts office, said Lodema Berkley, the Johnson County clerk of court.

The Johnson County office is currently staffed at 26, including supervisors. But the accepted staffing formula for courts says the office needs 30 employees to deal with the 1,000 files clerks handle each week.

Berkley said the furloughs would lead to a bigger backlogs. When courts experienced two furlough days a month earlier this year, paperwork began to build. But with three days off in December alone, the office will fall further behind faster.

Clerks will need to prioritize which files need immediate attention. That means a juvenile case that must go before a judge immediately will receive precedence, Berkley said.

Information won’t be posted online as promptly, and delays in sending out orders are expected.

State Court Administrator David Boyd said in a press release that officials tried to choose the least busy days to close. But nine of the 10 furlough days fall on Thursdays or Fridays, the busiest days for the Clerk of Courts Office in Johnson County.

Deadlines that fall on furlough days will be extended and hearings and trials will be rescheduled. A calendar at the Johnson County Courthouse showed 71 hearings today in one courtroom alone.

Officials decided to close entire courthouses rather than divide furloughs into different days for various employees because it is a better arrangement for small courthouses and was easier to implement within the collective bargaining agreement, said Court Spokesman Steve Davis.

Local attorney Bruce Walker said the furloughs in the last several years haven’t had much effect on his practice. He has been able to plan around closures and fax or mail documents if the office is closed. But this situation might be different.

“If the courthouse is closed, that will have an effect,” he said. “We just won’t know what it will be.”

Furloughs and budget shortfalls have occurred since 2005, and the Supreme Court had already ordered five furlough days earlier in the year. But Berkley said this situation is the worst since layoffs in 2001.

“They’re not just balancing the budget to get by, they’re cutting into the real meat of the department,” she said.

And with almost $12 million in cuts left, Berkley is worried. Two court reporters have already been laid off in Johnson County this year, and further layoffs are expected.

Employees in the office have been cross-trained to help each other, but that won’t help if they begin losing those people, Berkley said.

“We’re just hanging on, waiting to see what’s next,” she said.


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