With the potential of workload increases, Parker County officials discussed the requests of additional employees for Justice of the Peace courts now that Senate Bill 2342 has gone into effect.
SB 2342 changed the jurisdictional limit for JP courts from $10,000 to $20,000.
“Any claim coming into my court has a dollar figure attached to it, a civil case, [and] my jurisdiction stopped at $10,000. If somebody came in with damages of $10,001,they have to go to county court at law or the district court, and so what they have done is move that jurisdictional limit from $10,000 to $20,000 in civil cases,” Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Judge Kirk Martin said. “An example would be somebody rear-ends you and as long as the case was under $10,000 it could be filed here. Now it’s up to $20,000 in damages so basically that’s going to open up a lot of cases being filed here. It’s just simpler doing business in the JP courts than it is in the other courts, so we expect a sizable increase.”
Each Justice of the Peace judge had requested an additional clerk in anticipation of caseload increases; however, JP 2 Kelly Green withdrew his request before Thursday’s commissioners court budget workshop.
“The entire reason for the request was because as of Sept. 1 the jurisdiction limit went up and we don’t know what the numbers are going to be — we know they’re going to change, they’re going to increase, but we don’t know how much," Martin said. "At this time I don’t have office space to put this person. They would have to literally work in the courtroom or down the hall in the jury room because there’s no more space in my office.
"Even if it were approved, I wouldn’t be looking to hire a person at this time because the numbers need to support it, but we are going to have an increase and my chief clerk who handles civil, I don’t think she can take on much more than what she’s already handling. I did want the ability, should we be overwhelmed, to hire a person in three months or six months. I just didn’t want my hands to be tied should the need arise, and that was the reason for the request.”
Precinct 4 Commissioner Steve Dugan said not knowing what the increase could look like is difficult to budget for.
“The main thing is it’s unknown what that new workload may or may not be and to ask for four new employees you’re talking $325,000 to $340,000 a year increase on speculation,” Dugan said. “We’d have to budget for the salary for each one of them and tax the taxpayers accordingly without knowing where we’re going to be.”
At an August budget workshop, the commissioners court approved a full-time position for the county attorney’s office, saying this would eliminate the need for the four additional clerks for the JP courts. However, Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Court Coordinator Shaw Leath said there was a little misunderstanding.
“I know there was a little misunderstanding between the county attorney and taking some job off of our clerks. We have four clerks — I am the court coordinator as well as the civil clerk and that is the reason why we’re asking for a new clerk, because of the jurisdiction change,” Leath said. “It just isn’t going to allow me to do both jobs in the full capacity that I should be able to. I know we don’t have anything to prove that our caseload is going to go up and I do understand we might give it a year, but as of right now that was the main reason, the jurisdiction change.”
No action was taken on the requests and the item will be brought back to a future commissioners court workshop.
“What we don’t want to do is hire these people and have a minimal impact on this legislative change,” Parker County Judge Pat Deen said.
Parker County District Clerk Sharena Gilliland also submitted a request to reclassify positions in her office due to an increase in caseloads.
"Something really unique that's happened in just the last five years is our county's population is exploding and so that changes some of the work that we're doing in volume and complexity and that's one of the reasons why I want to have more of a tiered structure within my office," Gilliland said. "So who is in charge of what is a lot more clear and defined, and the folks that are doing those duties are compensated for it."
Gilliland said between 2011 and today, her office's caseload has increased between 15-20% overall.
"In 2012, every department was told to cut back by a certain percentage. We tightened our belt buckle and cut an entire full-time position. Then about two or three years ago, we asked for that position to come back part-time and now it's a full time, so since 2011 our number of employees has not increased," Gilliland said. "The complexity of our work is changing as we move into a more electronic world and as we see more cases coming in. What we handle in district [court] are the most serious of cases. We could use two more employees right now today, but I'm not asking for that because I know the theme of the budget this year."
No action was taken on Gilliland's request.