Effective July 1, the Shelby County Circuit Clerk's office will be closed to the public between noon and 1 p.m. due to cutbacks the state is making in all courthouses. The reduced hour of service is only the beginning of cutbacks that could soon be enforced in every courthouse in Alabama.
The new hours will be 8 a.m.-12 p.m. and 1 p.m.-4:30 p.m. beginning Friday and are a result of an administrative order made by Judge Hewitt Conwill. The Shelby County Circuit Clerk's office is located in the first floor of the Shelby County Courthouse in Columbiana.
Circuit Clerk Mary Harris said the decision to close her office during the lunch hour is intended to make the office more efficient. Currently, the 16 employees at the office take staggered lunch breaks between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. With the new schedule, all Circuit Clerk office employees will take a 30 minute break followed by 30 minutes during which employees can return phone calls and check email while uninterrupted. The judges and judicial assistants already take a lunch break between noon and 1 p.m., so the reduced office hours will not affect the employees' ability to assist judges with court cases.
The Circuit Clerk's office handles lawsuits, small claims courts, juvenile court and traffic fees and fines, among other duties. Harris said that more cuts to her already-understaffed office are expected. The Administrative Office of Courts in Montgomery has said that by August, every court in Alabama might be required to cut their employees by 35 percent.
Harris says her office is supposed to have 31 employees, but it currently has 16, making it the most understaffed circuit clerk's office in the state, despite being housed in the fastest growing county in Alabam. She will lose two long-time employees during the next month after Deputy Clerk Lou Lawley retires Thursday after working there for 33 years, and the Criminal Court Supervisor, Ruth Gwin, an employee for the past 29 years, will retire at the end of July. Harris said she has been under a hiring freeze for the past three or four years, so she will not be allowed to hire other employees to replace the ones retiring.
If the state requires the 35 percent cut to all courthouses, the Shelby County Circuit Clerk's office could lose six out of the current 16 employees, bringing it down to only 10.
"I am hoping it won't be quite as bad as that," Harris said. "If I had as many employees as I need, I would be ecstatic."
Harris said she should know by July 15 whether or not the cuts will have to be made.
Harris has served the Shelby County Circuit Clerk's office for 39 years and said she has always made sure it is customer service-oriented, but the days of being able to go above and beyond the required duties may be coming to an end soon.
"With the cutbacks, we won't be able to do everything we have in the past," she said.