Benton County clerk holds court(room) as office is remodeled

Kristin M. Kraemer, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 5, 2013 

Do you need to file for divorce, apply for a U.S. passport or pay Benton County Superior Court fines within the next three weeks?

If so, expect to find yourself doing business inside a courtroom while the Benton County Clerk's Office undergoes an $86,500 remodel.

The front counter and walls started coming down this week, forcing Clerk Josie Delvin to move several employees to nearby Courtroom D.

The makeshift office with a copy machine, computers and printers allows those clerks to continue working with the public, while construction crews drill and hammer away behind plastic sheets at the end of the hallway.

Delvin acknowledged it will be messy for a while and has created more work for her displaced employees to go between the courtroom and the office.

"Some people are wearing earplugs during the really noisy part," she said. "But everybody has been really good about it. They understand that a remodel is really difficult and noisy and messy, but the end result is worth it for the pain that we go through for a month, and hopefully for the public too."

The project is expected to take 23 days.

Once completed, the clerk's office in the Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick no longer will have a lobby. People instead will stop by one of five windows to talk to a clerk.

"The walls that were existing, that closed in the lobby will be where people walk up, and that will be our windows. They won't walk through a door anymore into our office," Delvin told the Herald.

Each window will be inset a little bit so people talking about divorce issues, seeking a domestic violence protection order or giving their Social Security number or birth dates for paperwork will have some privacy.

The remodel, which has been in the planning stages for almost a year, is geared at reducing the congestion in the hallway on certain court days. It will allow the clerks to have all five windows open and hopefully cut down on the wait time when there are long lines for criminal collections or passport applications, said officials.

However, the bigger concern was Delvin's employees, who reported safety and Americans with Disabilities Act issues because of their cramped work spaces behind the old counter.

The three clerks sat on high chairs to be at the same level as the counter, and it was "extremely difficult" for one employee to get in and out of the chair, Delvin said.

"This is going to be a much, much better workspace for them and much better space to serve the public," she said.

The clerk's office lobby has gone through a series of changes in the past decade, since the justice center's main entrance on Quinault Avenue was closed and moved to the parking lot between Okanogan Place and Belfair Street. That's when the clerk's office was expanded.

Delvin admits it would have been better in 2007 to have put in an L-shaped counter, instead of a straight one.

"At that time we didn't have the (legal financial obligations) docket so we didn't have the huge lines down the hallway," she said. "In three, four years things have changed, and we've gotten busier."

The clerk's office is in "a pretty tight corner" with courtrooms on both sides, so there weren't many options with the remodel, Delvin said.

"This is probably going to be the best that it gets for us with the space that we have," she said. "It wasn't originally designed very well to begin with for the amount of traffic that we have."

The work is being done by Banlin Construction of Kennewick. The $86,500 cost, which covers everything from demolition to the new desks, is being paid for with Benton County capital improvement funds, she said.

Her employees now will sit at desks that are normal workstation height, with a speaker in the window to talk through and a hole for passing documents.

Each window will be made of security glass and have a door that rolls down when the office is closed or automatically when the fire alarm goes off.

Two windows will face directly into the hallway for criminal collections.

Three windows will be around the corner near Courtroom D and a secured entrance to the clerk's office. Two of those windows will be designated for general clerk's office business, such as civil filings, protection orders and passports. The third will be used based on the demand.

Delvin doesn't expect the long lines to be wiped out with the new configuration, but she thinks it will make it easier to help customers.

The clerk's office has hired a security officer for Thursday afternoons during the legal financial obligations docket. The J&J Security employee helps direct people to the right window while cutting down on the number of fights that have happened in line.

Security costs about $20 an hour for no more than 21/2 hours a week, and was tacked on to the existing Juvenile Court contract, she said.

Also, new reader board monitors -- which look like airport screens announcing flight times -- were installed before Christmas. Names will be listed alphabetically on the boards to help people find the correct hearing times and courtrooms.

The boards will be used by Superior Court and District Court, Delvin said. Superior Court uses courtrooms A to F, while District Court numbers them 1 to 6.

Similar monitors have been in place in King, Skagit and Pierce counties, she said. The goal is to help direct people as soon as they come in the building, and reduce the work of creating paper printouts to hang in the hallways.

Delvin said Trial Court Improvement Fund money will cover the estimated $40,000 cost of the monitors, server, software, installation and training.

In addition to the public readerboards, monitors have been placed in the private hallways near judicial chambers for both courts so administrators can show the judges their daily schedules.

Once the public boards are in use, officials will keep watch of the monitors to make sure it doesn't create a congestion problem near the security area.

"If it does, then we'll have to see if we can come up with an alternate plan to move the monitors," she said. "But we're hoping we don't have to. That is an ideal spot right when you come in."

w Kristin M. Kraemer: 582-1531; kkraemer@tricityherald.com

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