Judicial district cutting hours

Heavy caseloads, waning manpower reason for cutback

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— Court clerks in Routt and Moffat counties are closing up shop an hour early beginning March 10.

Heavier caseloads and waning manpower are forcing courts in the 14th Judicial District to shorten their business hours.

That means staff won't answer phones, accept fee payments or answer questions about cases after 4 p.m.

The early closure is an attempt to soften the blow dealt by a $98,000 cut to the 14th Judicial District's $1.8 million budget, District Court Administrator Evan Herman said.

The cut came on the heels of state lawmakers' decision to reduce Colorado's judiciary budget by $9 million to help resolve an $850 million budget shortfall.

"The reality of our current situation ... is not without consequences," Herman said.

All judicial employees, with the exception of judges, have been ordered to take eight unpaid days off before June 30, the end of fiscal year 2003.

That translates to 1,326 lost work hours. The district is losing another 1,000 hours of clerical work because it cannot afford to hire new employees to fill vacant positions.

"The district has always operated in an extremely lean, efficient manner," Chief District Judge Michael O'Hara said earlier. "We simply cannot absorb further reductions without the creation of serious problems."

Although service counters are closing earlier, court clerks are not heading home at 4 p.m.

Shortened business hours are intended to free up time for staff to do their work without interruption from 4 to 5 p.m.

Slashed work hours create a larger workload for fewer people. Herman hopes some quiet time at the end of the day will allow court clerks to tackle more of their growing tasks.

Karen Salaz of the State Court Administrator's Office said the 14th Judicial District's move to curb business hours mirrors what other judicial districts have done to counter budget cuts.

"They have found that if they reduce the hours they are open to the public by one or two hours a day, it gives the staff the ability ... to catch up (on their work)," Salaz said.

Herman said the district chose to close at 4 p.m. because it should make the smallest impact on people who visit the service counter, he said.

Other options, including the closing during noon hour or opening an hour later, at 9 a.m., were considered but rejected.

Many people take care of their business early in the morning or during their lunch hour and closing the service counter at those times might create an inconvenience, he said.

"It was not good customer service to do that," he said. "The customer has always been our No. 1 priority. We want to serve our community the best we can."

The service window for Grand County's courts will continue to stay open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. because court clerks' workload is still manageable.

Courts in Colorado could very well face additional cuts in the 2004 fiscal year because the state's financial picture is not looking any brighter.

"The budget situation is relatively indefinite," Herman said. "The cuts are not temporary cuts. They are all permanent cuts."

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