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The Advocate and Democrat.

Monroe County Commission approves money for court clerks to be on call 24 hours

Published: 4:30 PM, 01/29/2009 Last updated: 12:10 PM, 04/01/2009

The County Commission met in a workshop session Tuesday night to discuss the process of swearing warrants after hours and on the weekends.

It was generally agreed working in the middle of the night and giving up personal time on the weekend, is not a job many would want, and one commissioner said he would do it if it meant the county would not have to raise taxes.

Court Clerk Marty Cook currently pays someone from her staff $300 to be on call each weekend. Also, someone from the clerk's office comes in at 6 each morning and stays until 6 p.m. each evening to swear the warrants.

However, it is the time between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. when problems have arisen and some cases have been dismissed because the officers have not sworn their warrants.

In a workshop earlier this month, Judge Reed Dixon said, "If a warrant isn't sworn to, it's not coming into my courtroom anymore. It's not my fault these charges are being dismissed."

The law states that law enforcement officers have 48 hours before they have to swear to a warrant, making it official. A person who has been arrested cannot make bond until the warrant has been sworn to. On most charges, a person has to stay in jail at least four hours before they are eligible for release, but once they are eligible, they have to be given the chance to make bond.

Cook said two of the court clerks live in Sweetwater and the police officers there usually just go to a clerk's house to get the warrants sworn.

However, Cook and the other clerks get calls in the middle of the night to come to the jail or the courthouse to swear warrants for officers.

Cook proposed paying each employee $500-$600 to be on call for one week. She said she has eight employees willing to do that, so each person would only have to be on call once every eight weeks. The Sheriff's Office and the police departments will have the phone numbers of the clerks on call.

"I think that is doable," she said.

County Attorney Jerome Melton told commissioners if the clerks worked more than 40 hours a week, the county would have to pay them time and a half. He emphasized however, they would only be paid for time actually spent working. For instance, they would not be paid for the total time spent on call or if called in, driving from their home to the jail or clerk's office.

It was estimated it would take $10,000 to cover the extra time the clerks work from now until the end of the fiscal year on June 30. However, Cook does not have the extra money in her budget.

Finance Director Brian Tallent said they would have to take the money out of the fund balance. When Commissioner Judy Lee asked if the money was in the fund balance, Tallent replied, "For now."

The county has a revenue shortfall, which could get worse before the end of the fiscal year as sales tax collections continue to dwindle. Property tax collections are up, but most of that is due to the re-appraisal last year. Due to the high unemployment rate and the lagging economy, county officials predict many people won't be able to pay their property taxes, which are due Feb. 28.

There was a brief discussion about whether it would be better to hire judicial commissioners to be on call after-hours and on weekends rather than paying the clerks to work the extra time.

However, the commission voted unanimously to try Cook's proposal on a trial basis until the end of the fiscal year.

"It's not a job any of us want," said Commissioner Roger Thomas, "But I'll do it before I vote to raise taxes."

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