Court

Once with a dozen employees, the Muscatine County Courthouse is now home to 10, who will almost all be housed on the first floor following office consolidation this fall.

SARAH RITTER/MUSCATINE JOURNAL

MUSCATINE — With fewer employees than in previous years, the Muscatine County Courthouse is looking at ways to make the best use of its space.

In June, the Iowa Supreme Court approved the fiscal year 2018 budget, which extended a statewide hiring freeze from last year. The freeze resulted in more than 150 vacant positions in Iowa, and last winter, the legislature de-appropriated more than $3 million from the judicial branch.

Courts across the state have been struggling to manage with fewer employees, reduced hours and fewer services, including in Muscatine County. On Monday, Muscatine County District Court Clerk Jeff Tollenaer updated the Board of Supervisors on the ongoing budget problems.

Since December, Tollenaer said two people have retired, which initially were considered vacancies.

"Those are no longer vacancies, with the budget now, those positions are gone forever," he said.

The budget for the current fiscal year, almost $15 million less than what the judiciary said it needed, has also resulted in counties sharing district judges. Muscatine County, which typically has two district judges, now has one on most days. Also, civil and family cases, including protective orders and divorces, are being delayed.

Some districts, Tollenaer said, have opted to delegate one clerk to work for several counties.

"A clerk could manage up to four offices, and I don't think they have to be contiguous anymore," he said. "(We're) lucky we only have to manage one office."

With no plan to fill vacancies any time soon, Tollenaer is looking to consolidate the courthouse's offices. He is planning to move all nine employees to the first floor, then keep one employee on the third floor for court attendance.

"It's been difficult to staff two offices and keep those functional," he said.

He expects bringing employees from the second to first floor will offer opportunities for cross-training and improve human resources. The leftover space, plus currently unused space, he said, could also be better utilized.

The courthouse has one large "middle" room, which was previously the old Board of Supervisors meeting room. He said that space could be transformed into an attorney-client conference room or a medical examiner space.

Board of Supervisors Chair Jeff Sorensen said the courthouse has long-needed more space for attorneys to meet with clients, or people to have private conversations about sensitive cases. Tollenear said they could use additional rooms for private meetings, mental health commitments, domestic abuse cases and mediation.

"The Iowa Supreme Court is going to make mediation mandatory," Tollenaer said. "Mediators come in, meet with people (about) family law, and try to work out issues before it goes to a court hearing or trial. We're the only district that does not do that ... and we're going to need a private area to do that."

District Court Administrator Kathy Gaylord said it is becoming a trend at courthouses to have multi-purpose rooms, and the county should consider creating spaces that can fit multiple needs.

While some space will not be able to be utilized for a while, including a vault area with 15,000 paper records, plans for office consolidation coincides with potential updates at the courthouse.

Muscatine County has hired a firm to design a new third-floor District Courtroom, which will include technology upgrades, improvements to the judge's bench and jury box, plus a holding area for prisoners.

At Monday's meeting, board member Robert Howard said he wants the county to consider long-range plans for the courthouse, so it does not spend money each year on improvements. He asked courthouse staff to consider further, potential cuts and budget restraints in the consolidation process.

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