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Joyce Endee

New circuit court system to combine three courts, cut positions

Carroll County staff cut in half, Register of Probate duties reduced

May 26, 2011
STATE — New Hampshire is on a fast track to replace the district, family division and probate court clerks with a circuit court system that cuts administrative staff by 56 percent.

All courts will remain in their current locations but with reduced staff. Layoffs, announced to employees across the state in the first week of May, are scheduled for June 2, following passage of House Bill 609, establishing the circuit court.

Governor John Lynch signed the bill into law on May 16.

"The institutional knowledge we have lost is overwhelming," said Administrative Judge David King, referring to the loss of 167 years of experience among the clerks alone. The process "wasn't without a lot of pain," he added.

In order to reduce the 118 clerk and deputy positions to 51, positions were posted and employees were notified that they would have to reapply.

There are now 52 clerks in the district, family division and probate system. Under the circuit court system, that number has been reduced to 18. Eleven clerk positions will be eliminated through layoffs or retirements, and another 23 clerks will be demoted.

There now are 60 deputy clerks, but the circuit court system will only hire 28. Deputy clerks who don't get one of the new circuit court deputy clerk positions may be reclassified to court assistant, a lower pay grade.

According to King, 120 existing employees applied for 51 new positions, creating an "outstanding" pool of applicants. In just two weeks 82 applicants were interviewed.

"It's an extraordinary challenge to get this in order so quickly," said the judiciary's Communications Director Laura Kiernan, of the House Finance Committee's decision. "It's a major effort, expedited by the legislature. The bottom line is that the legislature told us we have to reduce staff right now."

The new law also changes the elected position of Register of Probate, who will henceforth earn just $100 a year and only retain responsibility for keeping the court's old records.

The number of full-time, non-judicial positions will go from 632 employees to 460 employees, according to Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly. The number of judges, already low, will be retained.

Even so, the judicial branch still faces a $3.2 million funding gap, says Kiernan. A plan put forth in January by the Judicial Innovation Commission, intending savings of $37 million over 10 years, mostly through attrition, was proposed to begin July 2012, but the House voted to begin the transition immediately. It will provide $2.9 million above Gov. John Lynch's level-funded judicial branch budget to get the new system established, which includes a centralized call system

"Seventy percent of calls can be answered by someone with basic clerk knowledge and access to knowledge," says King, who puts the number of yearly calls at around 50,000. He said the new system is modeled after Delta Dental's call structure, which sets schedules based on peak times, and he expects to hire about 20 staff people to handle the load.

When asked if callers would reach a person rather than a routing system, he said the state intends to have people answering directly, and if 20 isn't enough they'll hire more.

The Carroll County District courts, located in Ossipee and Conway, will be reduced from three clerks and three deputies, down to one clerk for all three, and two deputies, one each in Ossipee and Conway.

"It's been an unpleasant month," said King. "We know these people. We work with them every day."

Kiernan says that information, currently in flux, will be laid out on the judiciary's web site by July 5. The budget goes into effect on July 1.

More changes may be anticipated depending on the outcome of SB 3, State Senator Jeb Bradley's move to modify the state's retirement and pension system.

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