The Sheboygan County Clerk of Circuit Court’s Office is at a tipping point.
The office is down to 24 employees, nine less than when Clerk of Court Nan Todd took office in 2001. It has been a struggle to make budget each year, in the face of declining collections from those who owe fines and legal fees, and less and less money from the state.
“So far I’ve been willing to say, ‘OK, I think we can survive … we’ll give up one position,’” Todd said. “But at this point I think I would have to say, ‘No, we can’t survive.’
“I think we’ve reached that point where there aren’t enough bodies to go around.”
The clerk of court’s office services a county of about 115,000 people. Many of those who go to one of the clerk’s windows might not notice that the number of employees has shrunk steadily for more than a decade as a result of layoffs and attrition.
But a 2012 study by the Williamsburg, Va.-based National Center for State Courts says that reducing “employee numbers further would … jeopardize office productivity.”
“It’s too bad,” said Clerk of Court Chief Deputy Melody Lorge, who has been at the office since 1987. “I think a lot of people have pride in what they do.”
For now, the staffing levels are expected to stay the same. Todd said she received word that the money that comes from the state most likely will not decrease in 2014.
The budget will shrink by about $500,000, she said, although money was saved by a new hire who is paid less than a retired employee and declining costs for court-appointed counsel and guardians ad litem.
The employees who remain are expanding their skills, Todd said. She is training more staff members to work in the courtrooms, which is an essential piece of the daily routine as each courtroom needs at least one clerk in there at all times.
“There’s a lot more cross training that’s going on,” Todd said, “so people are able to handle more than just where they used to be able to do. Now they kind of have to know every area.”
In 2012, the Clerk of Court’s Office collected about $2.97 million in fees, fines and penalties. In 2002, it collected about $3.74 million.
Todd attributed the decline in collections to the struggling economy.
“There’s just nothing to collect,” she said. “They just don’t have the money.”
Of the money collected in 2012, the office was able to keep $782,000. They probably will get less this year, she said, as 2013 collections already are showing a decrease.
“Every year I reduce what I am putting in my budget for what I anticipate for collections and every year I can’t even make my targets,” Todd said. “It’s pretty dismal.”
Some of the problems have been offset by taking a larger share of the county’s tax levy, but Todd said the amount allocated for next year won’t even cover the 2 percent raises budgeted for employees.
“If I’m looking at a reduction in the state revenue and reduction of payments, I’m not quite sure what I’m going to cut,” Todd said. “But it can’t be staff anymore.”
Sheboygan County Administrator Adam Payne said declining state and local revenues are a problem statewide.
The difference with the Clerk of Court’s Office, he said, is that almost all the services it provides are state mandated.
So when Todd and the office exceed their budget at the end of the year, something that Payne said has happened every year and normally would leave other department heads “shaking in their boots,” the county is forced to pay the difference.
“Because of the uniqueness of her department,” Payne said, “and the fact that there are some variables, that’s what happens from time to time.”
Todd said she needs everyone she has to handle an increasing caseload. In a letter she gave to the Sheboygan County Commission in February, she said 14,672 cases were filed in 2012, a 6 percent increase over the previous year.
Generally, she said, caseloads have increased since she was elected in 2000, and many of the related costs are mandatory.
“I don’t have any choice,” Todd said. “I can’t say, ‘Oh, I’m not going to pay for juries for these people because I have to be able afford to pay my staff.’ So I’ve had to do personnel cuts.”
Judges are feeling the crunch, as well, said Chief Circuit Judge L. Edward Stengel, who has been on the bench since 1985.
In the early days, Stengel said “there were still periods of time when we had downtime.” But those days are gone.
“By and large,” he said, “the caseload is pretty constant now.”
Doing more with less
Among the recommendations the NCSC made in its study was to set up a clearer command structure in the clerk’s office. Todd said she did that recently.
It also recommended starting the transition from physical to electronic filing. She said that is in the works, and that she requested scanners from the state to start that process.
But most of the changes require simply doing more with less. Todd said court clerks who once were expected to know the ins and outs of taking and recording minutes in a civil case now are learning how to handle criminal and family court clerking, instead.
“You go where you have to,” said Sue Grunewald, an 11-year employee who now is training to work as a courtroom clerk, “and do what you have to do.”
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