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Clerk's office window hours cut at Sonoma County Superior Court

It's about to get harder to pay traffic tickets or file legal papers in Sonoma County Superior Court.

Starting Jan. 7, the clerk's office will close its windows an hour earlier so employees can work uninterrupted processing documents and handling collections.

The change is expected to result in longer lines for people waiting to pay driving fines, submit eviction notices or file divorce papers at an already reduced number of windows.

"It's going to be a lot worse," said Santa Rosa process server Maynard Buskirk, who has waited up to an hour to get documents stamped in the civil division.

"I don't think it will help that much. But it will be a big burden on us," he said.

Court officials say they had no choice. Continued budget cuts passed down by the state over nearly three years have forced them to leave 50 positions unfilled.

The overall 24 percent reduction in staff has driven up overtime costs and caused paperwork to pile up, said Jose Guillen, the court's executive officer.

Closing the clerk's offices at 3:30 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m. will help alleviate that, Guillen said.

"We have not been able to keep up with the workload," Guillen said.

Document drop-off boxes in the criminal, civil, traffic, family law and probate divisions will be available for people who arrive after 3:30 p.m.

The change comes on top of last year's reduction in the number of civil clerks available to assist walk-in traffic. Other cuts have included reduced hours in the family law division.

With the state planning to take a portion of the court's $18 million annual budget in the coming year, additional service cuts are expected.

Presiding Judge Rene Chouteau said the court will look for ways to save money that will hurt the public the least. Reducing the amount of time people can file paperwork is one of them, he said.

"Our main focus is giving people access to justice," he said.

But regular court users said closing the clerk's offices an hour early won't achieve any real savings. Most of their processing is done on the spot, while people wait, Buskirk said.

Not many professionals use the drop-off box because the turnaround is too slow, he said.

"That last hour is going to be relax time," Buskirk said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.

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