Court clerk seeks help for growing caseload

By Alex Bridges

WOODSTOCK — Shenandoah County’s circuit court clerk asked supervisors Thursday for money to keep a part-time worker to help with the office’s growing caseload.

The board agreed to consider Circuit Court Clerk Denise Barb-Estep’s request at their Nov. 25 meeting.

The clerk needs $8,293 to cover the cost to keep the part-time worker through June 30. Barb-Estep said her office has savings because a full-time worker went on unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act.

Board Chairman David Ferguson noted that the clerk intends to ask the county to include money in the next budget to hire another worker. Ferguson asked the clerk why she couldn’t wait until the next budget cycle.

“Because I feel like, as far behind as I am and having to get everyone else to try and help me takes away from their work, I don’t think that we’re providing good services to the citizens of Shenandoah County,” Barb-Estep said.

The caseload has more than doubled in the past three years, Barb-Estep explained. The number of criminal cases increased from 673 in 2011 to 996 in 2012 and 1,498 in 2013.

“The criminal docket is the worst right now,” Barb-Estep said. “Of course, my office is always busy, as you can see everything on here that we do.”

The circuit court is short 1.62 people based on its workload and not taking into account the time employees spend helping the public, Barb-Estep said. Employees often work after hours and on weekends. Barb-Estep said she offers those workers time off because her office lacks funds to compensate them for overtime.

The clerk said she expects the office to get busier. The court dealt with 910 criminal cases by the end of October 2013 and 981 criminal cases as of the last term day this October, Barb-Estep said.

The unusual number of major cases that could go to trial also put a “tremendous burden” on her office.

“Every motion that needs to be filed is filed,” Barb-Estep said. “So it’s a lot of work.”

The General Assembly appointed more judges to the circuit. As a result, the court must increase the frequency of its grand jury sessions and the number of days in each month it deals with criminal cases.

Supervisor Marsha Shruntz voiced support for the clerk’s request.

“This is justification for your request,” Shruntz said.

The clerk said she would prefer to hire a full-time employee.

“But it’s definitely not going to come from the state and I know the situation the county’s in,” Barb-Estep said.

The circuit courts and other constitutional offices receive some funding from the state Compensation Board. The county provides local funding over that amount.

“Don’t they have an appreciation for your workload?” Ferguson asked.

“Honestly, the constitutional officers, we’re kind of [the] stepchildren that nobody wants because we’re not state employees and we’re not county employees, we’re constitutional officers,” Barb-Estep said. “There’s been many times [in] the other courts the state employees have gotten raises and my employees have not.

“Does the state appreciate what we do?” the clerk added. “I would say no they don’t.”

<em>Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or <a href=“mailto:abridges@nvdaily.com”>abridges@nvdaily.com</a></em>