Furloughs pose some problems for courthouse workers

BY SAM LANE | MARCH 31, 2010 7:30 AM

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The sound of printing receipts, clicking time stamps, and constant chatter fills the Johnson County Clerk of Court’s office. And because of statewide budget cuts, the noises may now seem a bit more frantic than ever.

As a result of the state’s revenue shortfall, the courts system has faced an $11.4 million budget cut, 7.1 percent of the system’s budget. To cope, the state judiciary has ordered a number of furloughs for county courthouse employees.

To make up for time lost, the Johnson County Clerk’s office closes to the public two hours early on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Additionally, Lodema Berkley, the Johnson County clerk of court, has decided to enact a time-saving policy that requires individuals in need of assistance to look up their own case numbers on computers in the courthouse. Before, clerks searched for cases. Reactions to the new policy are split between understanding and frustration, Berkley said.

“People don’t quite understand,” she said. “They think we can take the four hours we’re closed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and they believe we can accomplish miracles with those four hours.”

Some of the biggest challenges have come from maintaining the court’s online records and the twice-a-week trips clerks make to offsite storage areas to retrieve files, she said. The criminal department of the clerk’s office has around two feet of shelf space remaining.

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“We’re trying to do the same amount of work in fewer hours,” said Wanda Sedivec, one of the clerks.
Sedivec, who has worked in the clerk’s office for 36 years, said the current workload situation is the worst she’s seen.

“I don’t get my work done as fast as I’d like to,” said Wendy Weller, another clerk. “I tend to be on autopilot.”

Clerk Mark Stimmel said he goes through 10 to 15 more charges a day than before the furloughs. He said he sent an e-mail to Gov. Chet Culver about the workload, but he hasn’t yet received a reply.

State courts aren’t the only ones being stretched financially.

Nationally, the federal judicial branch accounts for less than 1 percent of the federal budget. This year, the branch has asked for a budget increase because of an expanding caseload.

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