County offices reopen to public after vote

By ED HOWELL
Posted 5/19/20

The Walker County Commission unanimously voted Monday to open the courthouse offices at 1 p.m. that day, albeit subject to social distancing and other government guidelines to still help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

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County offices reopen to public after vote

Posted

The Walker County Commission unanimously voted Monday to open the courthouse offices at 1 p.m. that day, albeit subject to social distancing and other government guidelines to still help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

The commission voted 3-0 to pass a resolution in emergency session April 1 to close county facilities to the public due to the spread of coronavirus. It later decided to extend that order by a couple of weeks into May. 

Commissioners made the decision Monday in its first regularly scheduled meeting since March. The commission has met occasionally in emergency meetings. 

With early signals given that the action would be coming, county officials got calls and people coming to the office anticipating Monday's opening. 

District 3 Commissioner Ralph Williams said several citizens had complained to him that they had purchased vehicles from individuals and had to come in person to buy a tag, but that they couldn't because the Probate Judge's Office was closed. Law enforcement pulled some of the people over and, while not giving tickets, threatened them with one "if I see you come down the road one more time," he said. 

Probate Judge Lee Tucker noted penalties for those people have been waived through June 19. A number of people had been waiting that morning outside his office, and a large number of them fell into this category.

He said people buying vehicles from dealers could go online at https://altags.com/walker_license/. "We've processed hundreds of those since this has been going on and we've been mailing out the tags and decals," he said. 

With Memorial Day coming, he added boat tags can be purchased online. Anything that can't be done online, Tucker said his office would help by way of email or phone calls. 

While jury trial dockets have been delayed until September, Circuit Clerk Susan Odom said she is "ready" to deal with the public coming in. 

Odom recently put up plastic sheets to be barriers in her office, and she said after the meeting she is obtaining estimates from Lamar Glass about putting up glass barriers like were recently installed in the Revenue Commission and Probate Judge's Office. She is hoping the barriers can be paid for with state funds. 

She told commissioners during the meeting the reactivation of the old drop box has been amazing to her.

"We are receiving money and collecting money every day in the drop box. I'm considering keeping it up now for a while, because it has been very convenient for the people of Walker County, helping them to make their payments over 24 hours," Odom said.

Circuit Judge Doug Farris said statewide over 50 percent of court costs have been collected during the pandemic, agreeing the drop box has been very active. 

Tucker said he has moved driver's license transactions from the front of his office to the back, taking advantage of renovations for the glass to be installed at the counters. 

"What we're going to do is do appointments on those, specifically so that we don't have, as we have in the past, 15 people waiting to get a driver's license," he said. 

Also, he plans to use "every other clerk," assigning some to do phone, mail and online work, and swap out during the day. That will help with distancing. 

Walk-ins will have their phone number taken and will be asked to wait in their car until they are called in to do the business. 

"Having the glass up will make us a lot more comfortable," Tucker said, as people naturally tended to lean over the counter to talk to the clerk. "You can't really have that now," he said, also noting safety concerns. 

"We're ready. I think the longer we put (reopening) off at this point, especially with the next few Mondays being holidays, the worse it is going to be. We need to open so we can get people who want to pay cash. Numerous people in this county are coming to pay cash," he said.

He said many of those customers say they will never get a computer. By the time of the 9:30 a.m. commission meeting, he already had names and numbers for 200 people, and a line was trying to form outside the office. 

"We're going to be busy for the next several weeks, but we're ready to handle it," he said. 

Revenue Commissioner Jerry Guthrie, who is a former Sheriff's Department employee, said he and his staff was ready to go to work with a plan in place, adding the staff feels safe and secure. He said the glass barriers installed in his office was "a first-class job," adding it will "be there as long as the courthouse is here." 

County Administrator Robbie Dickerson said the glass barriers should last for years, noting that Probate and Revenue are the two largest departments as far as public foot traffic, outside of the jail.

"They have owned this from Day One and come up with plans, and have shared their ideas and thoughts on how things should be done," she said, thanking all employees but particularly Tucker and Guthrie, addressing them. "You made my job a whole lot easier. You were always thinking ahead, even to the point that now we are thinking about November" in case their is a second wave of the virus. 

County officials "do have work from home opportunities, but also it will help us to put together plans for the 'what if tornadoes' and what if other things happen, that we will be able to roll out and function as a county should," she said. She said the commission had good foresight to use the technology and other techniques, such as a new purchasing system. 

Dickerson said sanitation stations will be set up to obtain sanitizer, as well as public signs noting that "all COVID-19 mandated rules of operation must be followed." 

Mask and gloves will not be mandatory unless the commission orders that they are, she said. 

"I do have four employees who feel they need to wear masks. I've got some extra masks for that and gloves if any department needs that," she said. 

Farris said noted video hearings have continued to be held, although jury trials have been suspended until Sept. 14. All other in-person court appearances can now be held, due to a new state order last week. 

As for cleaning, District 1 Commissioner Keith Davis said extra staff has been added on for cleaning the offices, at the request of Chairman Jerry Bishop. "We're going to need that going forward," he said. 

Davis noted the dedication of employees in all county offices during the pandemic closings.