The Iowa Judicial Council released a tentative plan for restructuring the state's court system this week to address $5.5 million in budget cuts.
The council is seeking public comment on the plan, which reduces the number of Iowa's judicial districts from eight to five, and reorganizes court services into 28 court service areas.
Under the restructuring, Storm Lake would serve as the court service area for the four county area of Buena Vista, Cherokee, Ida and Sac.
"The plan is not set in stone by any means; it is a launching pad for public discussion," said Chief Justice Louis Lavorato of the Iowa Supreme Court.
He predicts a spirited public debate before the issue gets to approval stage.
Donna McPherron, clerk of court in Buena Vista County, said local officials heard of the plan only a few days ago.
A map of the proposed districts puts Storm Lake as one of the new 28 court service areas, which would support a minimum population of about 50,000 under the plan. Most areas include multiple counties to achieve that population base.
As a court service area, Storm Lake would be located within an hour drive for most residents in the four-county area. The center would house a clerk of court office, and would be the location for all district court services other than trials.
Trials and magistrate court would continue to be held in all 99 counties as needed.
"We plan to maintain some court presence in every county, Lavorato said. "We cannot afford to operate 99 full-time clerk of court offices, however, I'm confident that we can find new ways to provide all Iowans with access to essential court services."
The plan seems to cut the number of clerk's offices from 99 to 28, but the exact impact is not clear locally.
"Right now there is a clerk in all 99 counties and I don't know if the proposal eliminates some of the clerks offices or just the clerks," McPherron said.
Staffing will still need throughout many of the state's clerks offices. "There's probably more work than the offices have people to do it now," McPherron said.
While not overworked, McPherron said the county clerks office certainly isn't underworked. "We're sitting pretty good right now trying to keep on top of things," she said.
The new plan also cuts Iowa's eight judicial districts to five. And technology is another focus of the plan, with implementation of a statewide electronic filing and document management system.
The council is accepting written public comments on the plan. Once the council recommends a plan, it must go to the Iowa Supreme Court for consideration.
Some aspects of the plan, including reducing the number of judicial districts and clerks of court would require statutory changes.
Judicial districts are already developing plans for operating with a significantly reduced work force to cope with the budget cuts.
Earlier this month, the Judicial Branch announced it would eliminate about 185 jobs statewide in January, which includes 125 full-time positions in court clerk offices primarily in rural counties. Offices in many rural counties will likely operate on a part-time basis, but at a minimum during magistrate court hours and district court service days.
So far Buena Vista County has not had to absorb any cuts. "We haven't been cut yet, but I think it's coming... probably within the next couple of weeks," McPherron said.
On the Net: The State of Iowa Judicial Branch http://www.judicial.state.ia.us