Clerk of Courts’ Office Audit Report

By: Tina Romero

A just completed audit of the Office of the Clerk of Superior and State Courts (Clerk of Courts’ Office) was submitted to the Mayor and Commission on Feb. 5, 2010. The audit gives an overview of the staffing needs of the Clerk of Courts, it analyzes the potential impact on staffing and revenue if the indexing of real estate documents were to be privatized, and it examines the delay in the docketing of sentences imposed by the courts served by the office.

The report by the auditor shows that there should be improvements in:

  • · Staffing regarding the real estate, criminal and civil units
  • · Workspace; currently too many distractions
  • · Operations; more organization in terms of processing records

According to the Athens Clarke County government website, the office of the auditor was created by the Unified Government Charter to “conduct a continuing internal audit of the fiscal affairs and operations of every department, office, and agency of the Unified Government.”

The auditor’s job is to provide reviews and recommendations to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of government operations for the benefit of Athens-Clarke County. The Auditor’s Office most recent report reviewed the Office of the Clerk of Courts.

The Clerk of Courts is an elected position responsible for maintaining the official records of all criminal and civil actions filed in the Superior and State Courts of Athens-Clarke County. The position is also the custodian for all land records in Athens-Clarke County as required by state law. The review done by the auditor of the Clerk of Courts was conducted at the request of the Clerk of Courts.

STAFFING:

         After reviewing the Clerk of Courts’ Office, the auditor recommended improvements in staffing. The Clerk of Court’s office staff is organized into five work units: real estate, civil, criminal, bookkeeping, and jury/auxiliary services. According to the report, at the beginning of 2010 the Clerk of Courts Office was staffed with 17 positions. The FY10 operating budget for the Clerk of Courts’ Office totals $1,042,000 and the office is projected to generate approximately $420,000 in revenue from fees and charges. This is a decrease of approximately $170,000 since FY08. This decrease is largely the result of decreased real estate filing fees and associated taxes.

         In September 2009, the Clerk of Courts’ Office submitted an agenda report to the Mayor & Commission requesting $50,000 from the general fund operating contingency to privatize the indexing of real estate records. The purpose of the request was to get rid of the most time-consuming tasks associated with recording real estate transactions so that two of the four positions in the real estate unit could be reassigned to assist the other units with the backlog of case processing.

In evaluating the proposal as part of the audit, it was found that the reassignment of two positions to the other units would result in a further backlog in the processing of the real estate records even if indexing were out-sourced. In addition, privatization of the indexing function would result in approximately $72,000 annually in lost revenue for ACC, whereas the cost to provide the service in-house is estimated to be approximately $50,000.

Therefore, the auditor recommended that the real estate unit return the staffing level to four full-time positions and retain the indexing function in-house.

         In regards to staffing issues in the criminal and civil units, analysis in the report showed that the workload for these units in the Clerk of Courts’ Office has increased in all areas. According to the report, new case filings in Superior and State Court have increased by 43 percent since 2005, from 8,452 in 2005 to 12,098 in 2009. The increase in workload has caused case processing delays in the office.

          In the criminal unit, the large number of court proceedings that need to be processed daily has resulted in a 15 day delay in the entry of case dispositions, which delays the processing of paperwork to initiate transfers of applicable inmates to the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC). This delay impacts the ACC Jail population by reducing the number of beds available to local inmates, thus increasing the number of local inmates that must be housed out-of-county.

         Therefore, after the review, it was recommended that the office maintain staffing levels in the criminal unit at five full-time positions and establish a 48-hour timeframe for having the disposition of criminal cases entered into the case management system and “prisoner packages” transmitted to the GDC.

         The report also noted that walk-in customers at the criminal unit are served by whoever responds first. Spanish-speaking customers can be a challenge since no one in the office speaks Spanish. The auditor suggested the office consider requesting Spanish-language training for staff should time and budget allow.

WORK ENVIRONMENT:

It was observed by the auditor that many distractions were created from walk-in customers. Walk-in customers and phone calls occupy a significant portion of the daily workload activities. The Clerk of Courts’ Office has both internal and external customers and may have several people at the counter at one time. Due to the nature of the open-office floor plan and lack of private work spaces for the Deputy Clerks and Court Clerks, it is difficult for them to focus on their duties.

 Also, it was reported that there is no way to prevent unauthorized, unaccompanied customers from accessing the space behind the counter where case files and records are stored.

The auditor suggested that the Clerk of Courts’ Office reconfigure their floor plan to create an environment that minimizes work disruptions. It was also recommended that they create a single point of contact for walk-in customers by redesigning the customer service counter and also implement a system that limits the access of non-Clerk of Courts’ Office employees to the area behind the customer service counter.         

OPERATIONS:

         Besides staffing needs and conditions of the work environment, the auditor noticed the delay in docketing of sentences imposed by the courts served by the office during his review.

         During the observation, the auditor noted that in between processing steps, case files are placed in case number order on one of the “pending walls,” which is a set of open filing shelves. One is located near the civil unit staff, where civil case files are kept, and one is located near the criminal unit staff, where criminal case files are kept. This way a file can be easily located when it is requested by a judges’ office or when new paperwork on the case is received.

         Depending on what happens with a case, it may cycle onto and off of one of the pending walls multiple times before the case is disposed of. According to the report, the time required to process a civil or criminal case (receive it, docket the information, scan documents into the case management system, and perform any additional required steps) varies greatly depending on the type of case and the actions that the attorneys or judge may take.

         Because this process is so great, the auditor recommended that the Clerk of Courts’ Office work with the Central Services Department to develop a records retention plan that will expedite the removal of processed case files from work areas that are not designed for records storage.

         One last area that the auditor saw room for improvement was the processing of booking criminal case reports. Each offender booked into the jail is assigned an Offender Tracking Number (OTN) by the Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC). When GCIC accepts the fingerprints taken at the jail during intake, the OTN is used by the Clerk of Courts’ Office to print an Offender Based Tracking System (OBTS) form, which lists all charges associated with the arrest and booking of a defendant.

         A case cannot be cleared with GCIC unless the disposition of each charge on the OBTS form is entered. It is estimated by the Clerks’ Office staff that as many as 20 percent of the case files received from the jail do not have the OTN number listed, which delays the entry of case file information.

         To solve this problem, the audit report recommended that the ACC Sheriffs’ Office coordinate with the Clerk of Courts’ Office to reduce the number of arrest/booking reports that are transmitted to the Clerk of Courts’ Office without an OTN.

         The staffing review and organizational analysis of the Clerk of Courts’ Office done by the auditor was submitted to the Mayor and Commission. The audit achieved the goal of enhancing the effectiveness of government operations for the benefit of Athens-Clarke County.

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One Comment on “Clerk of Courts’ Office Audit Report”

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