Furlough to create backlog


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The Johnson County court staff braced for the first of 10 furlough days today, but they didn’t do much to prepare.

Because they couldn’t.

All they could do is wait to see how big the backlog of paperwork awaiting their return on Dec. 7 will be.

It took the Clerk of Courts Office two weeks to catch up after the last furlough day in the spring, said Johnson County Clerk of Court Lodema Berkley.

Furloughs — when the court’s staff are temporarily laid-off for one day — are nothing new for an almost constantly overstretched court system, but not to this extent. Judges have only been included in furloughs once, during a spring furlough day earlier this year, said 6th District court administrator Carroll Edmondson.

In an effort to allow clerks to catch up on paperwork, Iowa Supreme Court officials mandated that all clerks’ offices close to the public two hours early, two days a week beginning on Dec. 15. Officials tried a similar tactic during previous rounds of furloughs in 2004 and during the last fiscal year.

The extra uninterrupted hours helped but didn’t entirely resolve the problem, Edmonson said.

And Berkley isn’t hopeful they’ll alleviate the backlog this time.

“We’ll have 16 hours of work on the first day back,” she said. “It’s unreal to think it can be done.”

The 26 clerks will have to contend with three furlough days this month alone, working with four fewer clerks than what the staffing formula says they should. The office in Johnson County processes about 1,000 documents each week.

Iowa Chief Justice Marsha Ternus issued orders on Tuesday outlining what cases should take priority for clerks, judges, and magistrates when they return to work.

First on Ternus’ list for clerks is emergency matters, which include emergency commitments, domestic abuse issues, and criminal warrants.

These issues are common — clerks often deal with three cases involving domestic abuse a day — and must be addressed immediately because someone could be harmed if they aren’t, Berkley said.
One judge will work in each of Iowa’s 99 counties to handle any emergency matters that arise on Friday.

Court officials have tried notifying the public of the closures through releases to the media. They’ve also had notices posted on courthouse entrances for three weeks, Edmonson said.

For anyone who does show up, security staff on duty will be able to explain why the offices are closed. In Johnson County, the employees in the county attorneys office — located in the basement of the courthouse — and the deputy on duty have agreed to help if anyone comes to pay a fine, Berkley said.

The furloughs are a result of a 7.1 percent, or $11.4 million, budget shortfall within the state’s judicial system this year. With about 95 percent of the courts’ operating budget spent on employees, officials were forced to rely on furloughs and layoffs. Officials laid off 105 employees, cut 100 empty positions, and reduced hours for an additional 58 people. Each of the judicial system’s 1,935 employees will take 10 days of unpaid leave.

But officials worry the closures will affect not only court staff but the public as well.

“We hope that it stops sooner or later,” Berkley said. “But it will take a toll on the public when it comes to cases to be heard.”

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