It is imperative that we properly fund our court system here in Iowa
I am the Clerk of Court for Chickasaw County. I have been watching the ongoing discussions at the Statehouse with much concern. Last year, for FY2017, the Judicial Branch was given the same budget that we were given for FY2016.In order to make ends meet, our branch of government had to enact travel restrictions and hold open vacancies for clerk staff and judgeships. A recent additional $3 million cut has added to these restrictions and vacancies.A number of clerk’s offices across Iowa are currently significantly understaffed. Our budget margin is razor thin because of the cuts handed to us last year.Another status quo (the same as last year) budget for FY2018 would be devastating to your local clerk’s office— likely resulting in layoffs and/or furlough days, which would force us to, at least occasionally, close the office to the public.There are 47 specialty courts across the state helping Iowans, such as drug, domestic violence, and family treatment, which would cease to exist with a status quo budget.The duties of clerk staff in Iowa Code 602.8101 through Section 602.8109. There are more than 160 duties outlined in these chapters for the Clerk of Court. In addition, my co-workers and I must be very familiar with Iowa Code Chapters 125 (Substance-Related Disorders), 229 (Hospitalization of Persons with Mental Illness, 232 (Juvenile Justice), 236 (Domestic Abuse, 252A (support of Dependents), 321 (Motor Vehicles and Law of the Roads), 598 (Dissolution of Marriage and Domestic Relations), 600 (Adoptions), 607A (Juries), 631 (Small Claims), 633 (Probate), 822 (Post Conviction Procedures), 909-911 (Fines, Surcharges and Restitution), as well as a number of Chapters referencing criminal charges.We must also follow rules established in the Iowa Rules of Court and financial practices established by the State Auditor’s office.While the above duties are obviously numerous and vitally important, our top responsibility is customer service. We frequently work with people who are at the end of their rope, in high-stress situations. We often assist families with the mental health and substance abuse commitment process.We also help victims of domestic abuse in filing Chapter 236 protective order request. These two areas are extremely time sensitive and can be a significant safety issue for clerk staff involved.In addition, the Judicial Branch has recently implemented an electronic document management system. While this saves time in some ways, it has been very labor intensive when working with self-represented parties filing for divorce, small claims actions, and criminal actions. Frequently these court users have little computer knowledge, do not have access to internet at home, and can’t afford an attorney.These are people from our communities and absolutely deserve the very best the Judicial Branch can offer them. They won’t have the access and treatment they deserve if clerk staff and office hours are reduces due to another budget cut.These budget issues have become an annual problem, and it becomes more difficult each year to expect that employee morale won’t take a hit. People do not feel that their hard work is valued when they continue to take financial hits.Part of the reason that some Clerks offices are understaffed is because it is becoming more difficult to attract, hire, and keep quality employees.Clerk staff positions have become highly technical, and they are not jobs where just anyone can come in and perform at a high level. People who have the needed skills to perform well in a Clerk of Court office can now go to work somewhere else and receive better pay and benefit package.This situation has been made even more trying for those of us doing the hiring with the new law regarding collective bargaining.Judicial Branch staff are some of the most intelligent, hard working, and dedicated people I know. Clerks of Court are taking on the management of, and traveling to additional county offices without any additional compensation just to try to do their part to continue to bring court services to the people of Iowa.As 96 percent of our budget is labor cost, and with many Clerks offices having only two or three employees this branch of government is as financially lean as it can be without cutting services to court users.Our specialty courts and other court-led programs have proven to SAVE the states taxpayers $20 million.It is on behalf of the many court users throughout Chickasaw County that I ask you to contact Senator Waylon Brown and Representative Todd Prichard. Please ask them to fully fund the Judicial Branch to meet current and future needs.The work that clerk staff does directly impacts ordinary people, people that you and I see around our communities, often struggling through difficult times. It would be a shame to deny anyone access to the courts due to a lack of financial support from lawmakers.