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.


A Fresh Look At downtown Athens

Meeting Story

By: Tina Romero

Historic preservationists and urban planners titillated local citizens’ imaginations about redevelopment possibilities in downtown Athens during an all day symposium at Ciné.  There were about 90 guests who attended the event including Heidi Davison and several other commissioners, representatives, and professionals.

In conjunction with the symposium called “Look at That! Fresh Approaches in Urban Redevelopment for Athens,” the director of the University of Georgia Owens Library and Circle Gallery, UGA students, and an Athenian exhibited their distinctive interpretations of Athens. All of the speakers were striving to consider new ways to approach Athens redevelopment with a creative flair.

“We’re hoping for a little bit of a wow factor,” said Amy Kissane, executive director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation. “The reason we did this is to broaden people’s ideas about what can happen in downtown from an architectural standpoint and new construction, to public art and transportation in and out of downtown.”

The setting at Ciné, an art film theater and bar in a building that originally housed a tire-recapping business, serves as an example of adaptive reuse. Experts in urban design and redevelopment discussed examples of successful revitalization in other cities in Georgia to urban centers around the world in order to broaden the attendees’ vision of what could happen here and to inspire them into action. Many of those examples of urban redevelopment were presented in slides and films.

The symposium wasn’t so much about specific ideas for Athens as much as it was to share ideas being adopted in other places. The speakers all had a good breadth of experience of other places.

Morning speakers included Pratt Cassity and Judith Wasserman with the University of Georgia College of Environment and Design. Cassity addressed the principles of vital, livable urban spaces. He gave attendees a primer in how to evaluate neighborhood cohesiveness and determine whether new construction fits in. Wasserman discussed the creative use of public spaces and public art. She discussed the various ways in which public spaces can also serve as places for art and expression within the city. Nina Butler from the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission and BikeAthens spoke about local transportation concepts and issues.

Following a buffet lunch catered by local restaurant Marti’s at Midday, attendees watched short documentaries depicting development programs in cities like London; Bogota, Colombia; Portland, Ore.; Paris; Detroit; and Chattanooga, Tenn. The film component seemed to be one of the most successful aspects of the event. Screenings of short segments about innovative solutions to urban design challenges in various cities around the country and the world were presented, such as bicycle sharing programs in Paris and bus rapid transit in Curitiba, Brazil. The opportunity to see these cities as the dynamic places they are seemed to capture the audience’s attention and served as a far more effective illustration than even the most well presented PowerPoint lectures.

Later in the afternoon, Ken Reardon, director of the University of Memphis graduate program in city and regional planning and founding member of the Memphis Regional Design Center, walked attendees through the process of participatory planning. He led a discussion about possibilities for Athens and also presented some of his work involved with the Memphis Regional Design Center.

There was definitely a great deal of open dialogue about Athens redevelopment.  Cyclists were blamed for taking up every traffic lane all the time and there was vehement dispute over a future plaza called College Square. According to the pro-plaza party, downtown Athens will become a Portland-esque urban paradise as that plaza (College Square) goes in. The anti-pedestrian mall faction suggested that downtown would end up looking more like the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. These issues really illustrated the disagreement about methods.

The general consensus was that there should be more use of the downtown area and there should be a stop to sprawling over at the east side and other places. North of downtown is a prime location for growth, argued many of the attendees. It was clear that the majority felt that part of preserving the history of Athens is preserving a mixed income population in-town. That is, we should assure that affordable housing (not just for students) increases, and that historically black communities keep their buildings and neighborhoods too. Finally, along with reusing old buildings and warehouses, new buildings should keep within the scale of old buildings, though they shouldn’t look faux historic. Participants seemed wary of new downtown buildings that have started to look more and more like the SLC and new Tate center, for example.

In the discussion led by Reardon, there was real consensus among those involved about what Athens should feel like. Athens should remain vital, accessible, affordable and diverse. It needs to keep its small-town nature even as it embraces big-city ideas. Attendees were also very adamant about wanting a downtown grocery store.

René Shoemaker exhibited her one-of-a-kind textile paintings in “Athens Above,” a unique view of the skyline of Athens. Her interest in urban development stems from her roots, having been born and raised in New York City, as well has her work as the director of the Owens Library and Circle Gallery at the UGA College of Environment and Design. She said her workplace informs her design sensibility and interpretation of place, and that she values Athens as a quality livable city.

“My intention through the artwork is to help people open their eyes to the physical and spiritual essence of our everyday environment,” said Shoemaker.

“THREADS: Stitching urbanism, ecology, and community together in Athens, Georgia,” is a montage by a group working together to share their vision of what Athens could be. It was created by CED landscape architecture undergraduates Kevan Williams, Thomas Brown, Cat Dunleavy, and Agustina Hein; graphic design student Lizzy Hinrichs; recent interior design graduates Mary Alston Killen and Taylor Rassel; and Athenian Will Kiser. Their exhibit illustrated a possible future for Athens.

The group’s concepts were shown through a number of images that did a great job illustrating what words could never have done. There were four main concepts the people could take away from the exhibit.

First was the potential for a 3.6-mile loop of pedestrian spaces around downtown that does not yet exist.  Second was the Hanson Quarry. Hundreds of feet deep and covering around 50 acres, the Hanson Quarry is a big hole. Water issues aren’t going away, and when this quarry is tapped-out in the next 10–15 years, it could be a great reservoir. It’s also immediately adjacent to the Firefly rail-to-trail, and might make a great greenspace. Water is needed for industry and growth. The third main concept of the exhibit was a rail-trail along the CSX rail line which would serve as the most viable northern link between the Middle and North Oconee Greenways. The ability to connect and strengthen numerous elements of an entrepreneurial/arts district is huge. The exhibit showed how this rail-trial concept really has the potential to put Athens on the map in a big way.

Boroughs were the fourth concept illustrated in the exhibit.  The planners suggest that if there’s any idea we could borrow from New York, it is that of the borough. Athens could be split into five cohesive districts based on existing divides such as major greenbelts and the bypass. These five districts, based on the physical conditions of Athens-Clarke County, could be used for planning walkable services, neighborhood schools, transportation, political districts and anything else on a scale that makes sense.

None of these solutions on their own are necessarily the right answer to this town’s problems. These concepts were simply possibilities that address some of the issues Athens faces. The speakers, films and exhibits presented at this symposium achieved their goal of encouraging attendees to see what Athens could really become.


Senior Hunger

Betty Green lives in downtown Athens-Clarke County and is 72 years old. Ms. Green has been recently diagnosed with Diabetes and needs access to healthy, wholesome food more than ever. Ms. Green’s poverty-like circumstances and financial burdens prevent her from purchasing and preparing food for herself. 

Food insecurity is an urgent health problem for senior citizens in Athens–Clarke County. Ms. Green is part of a large group of seniors who are not able to receive food assistance through programs such as Meals on Wheels (MOW).  The demand for home delivered meals in Athens is not being met.

“Not enough is being done to fix the problem of food insecurity in Athens. There are waiting lists at many senior centers where the meals are distributed in Georgia,” says Dr. Mary Ann Johnson, professor at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at UGA. “There are real costs associated with home delivered meals, including the cost of the food and in some cases transportation for the meals. Food costs have been increasing in recent years. The Athens Community Council on Aging (ACCA) usually has enough volunteer drivers, but they are struggling to raise enough money to hire drivers because they don’t have enough volunteers.”

Community characteristics such as low income, no education, minority status and the unavailability to prepare and access food are the leading causes for food insecurity for senior citizens such as Ms. Green.

According to the ACCA, Georgia has the 11th fastest growing population of older adults in the country. Georgia also has the 7th highest prevalence of diabetes among older people. Among the major challenges related to aging and chronic diseases are controlling health care costs, maintaining independence, and enhancing quality of life through improved lifestyles and chronic disease management.

The ACCA also says that given the current harsh economic conditions, many older Georgians are having a difficult time making ends meet. For the first time in more than 30 years, there is not expected to be a cost of living increase in Social Security and Supplemental Security Income benefits. Coupled with likely increases in Part D of Medicare (prescription drug coverage), which is deducted from monthly benefits, many low income older Georgians, like Ms. Green, will have less to meet their nutritional needs.

Food Insecurity according to the USDA definition is “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited, or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”

According to the Food Bank of North East Georgia, In America, over 12 million households were food insecure during 2009. 12.9% of Georgia’s population was food insecure and 3.5% suffered from hunger throughout the year. Georgia’s population, according to 2009 census data, is 9,072,576 people. Of these, 1,206,652 live below the poverty threshold–or 13.3%. Clarke County has the highest poverty rate of all the 14 counties within the Food Bank’s service area. One out of seven senior citizens living in poverty in Northeast Georgia reside in Athens-Clarke County.

Meals on Wheels serves a very vulnerable population of older people who have a higher prevalence of health problems than the general population of older adults. National studies show that about one half of the foods and nutrients consumed by people in MOW are coming from the single meal provided each day. The home delivered meals provided through MOW provide a very important and substantial source of nutrition for vulnerable older adults.

Meal delivery programs are hurting and waiting lists have gotten longer because funds are needed. Each week seniors, like Ms. Green, who live alone, go without dinner or lunch two to three times each week.

“In the past year, I have wanted to apply for food stamps, but found the process too difficult,” says Ms. Green. UGA, the GA Division of Aging Services and the Aging Services Network perform a lot of research on food insecurity in older Georgians. Their studies show that transportation issues, paperwork and qualification standards have made access to food stamps a challenge for many residents in Athens-Clarke County. Nationally, participation in the Food Stamp program by elderly people is only at 32% of those eligible. By contrast, in Georgia the food stamp participation rate among seniors is only 7%.

“This is a very difficult problem Athens is dealing with,” says Dr. Johnson. “In the past, The Food Bank of Northeast Georgia (FBNG), has had programs for older adults in need of food but they are now lacking volunteers. There are other food banks and food pantries in our community that can help. Some churches may have programs and often families and neighbors might be able to help. But the need is great and the resources are not there to help the elderly.”

Dr. Jung Sun Lee, another professor at the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at UGA has been collaborating with the Georgia Department of Human Services Division of Aging Services to document the unmet need for congregate meals and home-delivered meal (HDM) programs among older Georgians. A total of 3,806 older Georgians requested HDM over the 19-week period between July and early November 2009. Only 1,210 of them (32%) received the meals and the remaining 68% were on program waitlists. Those on the waiting lists had poorer socioeconomic and nutritional health status than the participants at the time when they requested HDM services.

“There is a critical unmet need for HDM in Athens-Clarke County, a program that is of even greater importance to high risk seniors during an economic recession,” says Dr. Lee.

 The efforts made to try and diminish food insecurity among the elderly in Athens are not great enough to fix the problem. According to the Georgia Gerontology Society, Georgia must plan to realize future savings through proven prevention practices. Budget cuts are taking apart prevention programs and shredding lifelines to older Georgians including: meals, respite care, adult day care and access to prescription drug resources. Due to skyrocketing costs, Georgia must budget to meet the essential needs of vulnerable older adults on fixed incomes. The rising costs of fuel, food and basic energy needs are limiting services to the elderly, particularly the homebound. Fewer volunteers deliver meals when more people are seeking food. Housing and financial assistance and agencies are unable to serve more people with less money.

“Major federal programs could provide needed nutritional benefits for our senior citizens,” says Jennie Desse, Executive Director of the ACCA. “Over the last decade, 19 states have chosen to conduct demonstrations to make it easier for the elderly to receive Food Stamp benefits by reengineering the application process and eliminating the need to go to the local food stamp office. Our hope is to get Athens-Clarke County to jump on this bandwagon.”

“Moving forward in 2010, ACCA will begin offering many new classes on health and wellness. Working with our community partners, we will focus on nutrition and meal preparation… and financial health and exercise,” says Desse. “We hope that these small steps will help educate so that we can try to prevent hunger and disease among the elderly in Athens.”

A partnership was created among the Division of Aging Services, Division of Public Health, Diabetes Association of Atlanta, Diabetes Technologies, Inc., University of Georgia and the Aging Services Network to begin to address some of these challenges. Outcomes of the partnership include the website “Live Well Age Well” (www.livewellagewell.info) and a Community Intervention called “Seniors Taking Charge!”  The website provides information on healthy living for people aged 50 and older and their families and caregivers.

The goal of the community intervention is to improve physical activity, nutrition, and diabetes self-management skills. Among those with diabetes (45% of the participants), the diabetes intervention led to many improvements in nutrition, physical activity, and diabetes self-management. “It is our ultimate goal to educate those with health issues such as Ms. Green so that they can learn to how to take care of themselves in a time when funds and volunteers are lacking,” says Dr. Johnson.

“Community and university partnerships are vital for successful development, implementation, and evaluation of evidence-based health promotion programs. Communities can identify the real needs of real people, while universities can provide expertise in research and evaluation techniques,” says Dr. Lee. “Our department values our collaboration with the Division of Aging Services and the Aging Network, and looks forward to working together to further improve the well being of our oldest citizens.”

Program planners, policy makers, members of Georgia’s aging network, and interested citizens wishing to serve and support the older adult community in Athens, can help create new avenues and partnerships to better support and assist this growing population of senior citizens.


Fresh Look at Downtown Athens

By Tina Romero

“Look At That! Fresh Approaches in Urban Redevelopment for Athens” is a one-day seminar offered by the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation. The event is set for 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. Saturday, March 27, at Ciné, 234 W. Hancock Ave. in downtown Athens. Amy Kissane, executive director of the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation says, “this event is about celebrating what we have and inspiring commitment to a vision of downtown Athens that embraces all that makes Athens unique.”  The main topics discussed will be landscape architecture and transportation with a few exhibits in art and film. The broad-based community discussion will engage those interested in downtown Athens and what the future could hold.

According to their website, the Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation’s goal is to be a proactive force in developing community-wide understanding of the value of historic buildings, neighborhoods, and heritage. The purpose of the all day event will support Athens-Clarke Heritage Foundation’s goal by broadening audiences’ visions of what could be accomplished in Athens and will in turn inspire action.

“We want to provoke some deep and creative thinking about the future of our downtown. We’ll be showing and talking about examples of successful urban revitalization in other cities, in Georgia and across the world,” says Kissane.

Nina Butler of the Northeast Georgia Regional Commission and BikeAthens will talk on the many levels of transportation. “We are expecting a large turnout of people who are concerned and interested in alternative transportation options,” says Butler. “I was asked to participate in this event as a representative of BikeAthens. The main reason for my participation in this event is to promote transportation and land-use policies that improve alternative modes of transportation, including pedestrian, cycling, and public transit options. The mission of our organization is to make alternative transportation a practical, convenient, and safe option for all citizens of Athens-Clarke County.”

“As a lover of cities, I believe strongly in making informed decisions about development in general.  In my opinion, the provision for all modes of transportation – walking, cycling, transit, and automobile – helps communities thrive by connecting people to the places they need or want to go. It’s important to continually educate us as citizens about the kinds of transportation policies and projects that can enhance the way all of these residents and visitors experience our community. My plan is to focus my presentation on these issues,” says Butler.

Other issues that will be discussed by local academics and professionals are principles of vital, livable urban spaces, and examples of creative cities and public spaces.  Together, these important issues will encourage participants to focus on ways to reshape their communities and to think optimistically about the future for downtown Athens.

Registration for “Fresh Approaches” includes a $15 fee, which will include lunch and coffee breaks. For more information, call 706-353-1801 or visit http://www.achfonline.org. Space is limited, and RSVPs are requested by March 23.