Budget woes affect Circuit Clerk Office

Published 7:16 am Monday, August 1, 2011

The financial pinch the state’s judicial system is experiencing will be impacting both the hours of operation and staffing at the Butler County’s Circuit Clerk Office beginning August 15, says Circuit Clerk Allen Stephenson.

Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb has mandated substantial cuts for all circuit clerk offices, including hours of operation and employees.

“Based on a 2009 Manpower survey, that will translate into an office staffed with less than 50 percent of the personnel needed to perform the workload in Butler County,” Stephenson said.

The Butler County office has been open to the public five full days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. That includes Wednesdays.

“In order to abide by the Chief Justice’s decree, our new hours will be 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and 8 a.m. until noon on Wednesdays. This means we will be open to the public 36 hours a week,” Stephenson said.

“The extra hours will be used by the employees to catch up on work they cannot get accomplished during the day while fielding calls and assisting walk-ins to the office. Our office doors may be closed, but the staff will still be working.”

Stephenson has already seen two people laid off from his office since December 2010, with a third due to be laid off and a fourth retiring.  He says two additional full-time staffers are only temporary, paid with local funds gathered through collections.

“Of course, those funds will eventually run out,” Stephenson said.

While the staff is shrinking, its workload is not, with a greater than 70 percent increase in caseloads in Butler County since 2006.

According to Stephenson, almost 18,000 cases came through the office in 2010.  Many of these are traffic tickets, “which still have to go through the same process as other cases,” he said.

Criminal cases will always take precedence over civil cases, Stephenson said.

“By law we are mandated to give certain cases priority. So certain civil cases may take longer than we would like to move through the system,” he explained.

In spite of this gray cloud hanging over the state judicial system, Stephenson believes there is a silver lining for Butler County compared with many other counties.

“It’s harder in your smaller counties, such as Lowndes, because taking out even one employee hugely increases the workload for the rest,” he said.

“And it’s harder in the larger counties because most of those employees are only trained in one or two specific areas. However, here in a middle-sized county like ours, where the staff has had the opportunity to learn about many facets of the office, it won’t be as difficult a transition.”

Stephenson said he is asking the public to be patient with his office in the face of the cutbacks.

“We will endeavor to make this cause the least hardship to the public. We are going to work as hard as we can and as smart as we can so our citizens won’t feel any pain,” Stephenson said.