Got some court business? Better check hours first

  • Article by: PAM LOUWAGIE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 19, 2008 - 5:02 PM

If it's Wednesday afternoon, don't come looking for courthouse help in Hennepin County. Service counter closures are a trend.

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Jonathan Aanestad of Wayzata, left, expressed his frustrations about the closings to Mary Kay Long at the Hennepin County Government Center.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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All Adam Borgen wanted to do last Wednesday afternoon was to pay his traffic ticket.

He said he found someone to work his shift waiting tables, drove from his home in St. Paul to downtown Minneapolis, found the Hennepin County Government Center, paid for parking and found the main information desk on the second floor.

What happened when he finally got there?

Sorry, he was told. Courthouse services in Hennepin County are closed on Wednesday afternoons because of budget problems.

Unable to hand over the cash he'd brought, Borgen stood dumbfounded for a moment. "I thought normal business hours meant normal business hours," he said.

But many Minnesotans with court business are finding their local courthouses may not always be open when they expect, thanks to the state's budget woes.

Courthouses around the state are cutting services -- including hours answering questions at public service counters and over the phone -- to keep up with rising health care and salary costs and a slower stream of money from state government.

Courts throughout Minnesota are now short about $13 million, administrators said. And Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget proposal calls for another $9 million to be cut.

There are currently 207 open positions in courts around the state, and the proposed cut would mean the elimination of an additional 222 jobs, most likely including some layoffs, said Sue Dosal, who heads the state court administrator's office in St. Paul.

"We're up against a wall now," she said.

Meanwhile, a sluggish economy is yielding more court work: Default judgments are up, as well as family court, criminal cases and other legal matters.

"In bad economic times, we tend to see our business go up, not down," Dosal said.

A dozen counties have cut back on the hours when staff can help with questions, and at least one more has plans to do the same.

Administrative staffs are shrinking through attrition, and the only way to keep up with filing legal papers is to give workers some time each week to concentrate without answering phones or helping people at a counter, administrators say.

In Hennepin County, that time comes on Wednesday afternoons. Each of the 11 counties in the Third Judicial District of southern Minnesota has a morning when nobody's available to receive fine payments or fetch court files.

For example, in Rice County, just south of the metro area, those services aren't available from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on Fridays.

Frustrations abound

Jonathan Aanestad took time off from work and drove downtown from Wayzata on Wednesday to turn in a civil filing, he said, but every counter he went to was closed. He eventually saw a sign saying he could file papers in a drop box, but there was nobody to answer questions.

"Unbelievable. Tax dollars at work," he said with a scoff. "I'm just amazed. ... They should let the public know."

Matt Dosser, of Minneapolis, wanted to get some documents for an employment matter, but a clerk at the information counter told him he'd have to come back another day.

"Are you serious?" he asked her. "We're paying $1,800 more in taxes, in property taxes."

Dosser, who is studying to be a police officer, explained later that budget shortfalls have come up in classroom discussions, and he thinks local services are getting shortchanged.

"If you really think about it, this is crazy," Dosser said. "Our court system is not functioning because it doesn't have enough money ... I'm at a loss for words."

No easy decisions

Shutting down service counters was a difficult decision for Third District administrator Shelley Ellefson, who oversees court management for 11 counties in southern Minnesota.

But with a tight budget, administrators decided that counters could be closed on staggered mornings throughout the region. They are also scheduling conciliation court hearings less frequently, Ellefson said, to give judges and staff more time for cases that have state-mandated deadlines.

And those called to jury duty will have to serve longer terms in order to cut down on staff time spent summoning and training new jurors.

And don't plan on getting married anymore during business hours in those counties, Ellefson said. That service is going away.

In the 10th Judicial District, which includes eight counties mostly north of the metro area, the budget shortfall will soon mean a closed counter on Tuesday mornings at the Washington County Courthouse in Stillwater, administrator Mike Moriarity said.

It also will be more crowded there, as officials are closing a Cottage Grove branch courthouse in July, 18 months before it was originally scheduled to shut down.

If courts have to absorb the additional proposed cuts, Hennepin's suburban courthouses near Southdale and Ridgedale could be shut down, along with reducing the services of other non-core functions such as the county's domestic abuse service center, said Mark Thompson, Hennepin County's courts administrator.

Right now, the Wednesday-afternoon job of telling people their courthouse needs can't be met falls to, among others, Mary Kay Long, who answers questions from people who come to the Government Center expecting help.

Workers "get vented on," Long said, but most people are reasonable. "Sorry," she tells them, her voice filled with empathy. "Contact your state legislator."

Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102

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