Small Ohio Court Saves Big

The Gallia County, Ohio, Clerk of Courts Office took advantage of technology larger counties were using and found that just because they were smaller didn't mean they had to be left behind.

by / October 31, 1995
Nov 95 Level of Govt.: Local Function: Courts Problem/Situation: The Gallia County Clerk of Courts Office was inundated with paper and expensive ledgers used to keep track of cases. Solution: An automated court system. Jurisdiction: Gallia County, Ohio. Vendors: ATEK. Contact: Gallia County Clerk of Courts Office 614/446-4612. Kicker: Keeping Track ...

By Justine Kavanaugh Staff Writer Nestled between the rolling Ohio River and the small city of Gallipolis, lies the historic Gallia County, Ohio, courthouse. The courthouse, which has undergone a major technological revolution over the past few years, is now fully automated, and a prime example of how even small, rural counties can benefit from technology and a little reengineering. The Clerk of Courts Office in Gallia County handles approximately 750 new case files each year and is responsible for filing papers and other related documents and records for the Common Pleas Court. These include papers on domestic, civil and criminal cases plus all the files associated with the Court of Appeals. With all this work, the staff was consistently struggling to keep up, and began looking for some solutions. "One of my first goals was to improve office efficiency and implement changes that would benefit the customers, employees and myself," said Louise Burger, clerk of courts. "We began with small things like photocopying journal entries and records, streamlining the method of paying jurors and - most importantly - improving the filing system." But simply reengineering some office procedures wasn't enough. They were still working harder than ever to keep up. So Gallia County officials visited some other, larger counties using automated systems and customized software to help ease the load. "Although the computer systems were used more in larger counties, we saw there was a definite benefit to them, and didn't see any reason why we should be left behind," said Burger.

CHOOSING A SYSTEM After searching for a system that would meet their needs, the Gallia County Clerk of Courts Office eventually chose ATEK, an Ohio-based firm that had put together several similar systems for other jurisdictions. ATEK helped Gallia County put together a Common Pleas Court Administration system with three major functions - case management, cash book and judicial procedure. Each is designed to save money and improve office efficiency. According to Burger, the receivable function alone - which was implemented first - has paid for the system. "Within a month we had collected about $15,000 in back court costs. It's amazing how much more in court costs we collect now because before we had no way of tracking who owed what and whether they had actually sent in a payment or not." With that success behind her, Burger was anxious to start the front-end receipting. "It's probably the most time-saving phase of the operation," she said. "Prior to the system, everything was hand-posted into large books. There was a book for civil or domestic cases, one for criminal and one for miscellaneous plus another for the Court of Appeals. These books were expensive, ranging from $500 and $600 for the appearance dockets to around $2,000 for the index." Not having to purchase these books has translated to added savings for the court.

KEEPING THINGS IN ORDER The case management portion of the system was also a welcomed addition that greatly increased the court's ability to keep things organized and to maintain accurate, readily-accessible court records. When new cases are entered into the system, they are numbered automatically by the type of case. The system automatically generates summons and adds issuance to the docket. It also creates an index which can be accessed from a public display terminal. A witness addition feature keeps track of all witnesses subpoenaed in a case, and fees for court costs are automatically added as papers are filed. The fees can be displayed or printed at any time. Burger said that the best aspect of the system was that it was easy to understand because it followed manual processes. "It is so much like doing it manually, except that you enter the data into a computer instead of writing it in a book. Because of this, there was a smooth transition and the system has definitely increased our individual and collective productivity, especially when it comes to preparing the various reports required by the courts." For Burger, 53, a smooth transition was very important because she had little experience with computers and was responsible for her small department making a major purchase. Where larger jurisdictions may be able to eat the cost of a system that didn't work as planned, Gallia County did not have that option. Fortunately, Burger adjusted to the system very well. "I was determined," she said, "and I could hardly wait to get on with the next step."

BENEFITS "I think the main benefit," said Burger, "was that we got to get rid of our large books and the storage problems that went along with them. It made us much faster, and I think if we hadn't implemented the system we would have had to hire more help. Also, we've made all the forms we use in the office available on the computer, so we don't have to buy printed forms anymore, and that's quite a savings." Burger said their system is consistently evaluated and upgraded as the need arises. ATEK appointed a steering committee to help guide the court where they wanted to go and to help them develop new functions. "We meet about three times a year to go over everything, submit ideas for improvements to the system and decide what the priorities are," said Burger. "I think the last thing we did were some enhancements to the functionality of the program so we could cut out some steps to make things go more quickly." Burger plans to continue improving the system in Gallia County to simplify processes and smooth the lines of communication. "Looking to the future, I would be interested in imaging so we could view or print the actual documents from the screen, thus ending the requirement of having the actual files readily accessible," she said. For now, Gallia County's success may help more small counties in the area get automated and take advantage of some of the benefits they have discovered along the way. "I think we probably have helped sell some of the adjoining counties on the system when they have visited," said Burger. "They definitely liked what they saw here."