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County approves two court filing fee increases

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

Several years ago, the Fayette County board turned down a request from the circuit clerk to increase two filing fees collected by her office, saying that the monies generated by those fees were not being used.

On Tuesday night, as another request was made by the new circuit clerk, the board found out why those increases are needed at this time.

Board members unanimously approved increasing both the automation and document storage fees to $15 after Circuit Clerk Mary Sue Ruot told them about a mandate passed down by the Illinois Supreme Court.

The automation fee was established at $3 by the county board in July 1985, and raised to $5 in December 1991. The document storage fee has remained at $3 since being approved by the board in June 1991.

The fees are charged on all cases filed in the circuit clerk’s office.

Ruot said that the Supreme Court has ordered all counties to have in place by Jan. 1, 2011, an emergency preparedness plan and proof that they have begun to follow that plan.

Among the requirements being placed on the counties is the scanning of all court records and placement of them on digital storage devices (CDs or DVDs), with one complete copy of those records to be stored off-site.

For Fayette County, that means the scanning and storage of millions of pages of records.

Ruot told the board on Tuesday that she currently has $246,000 in automation fee fund and $410,000 in the document storage fund, and that she was hoping that that would be enough to cover a lot of required scanning and storage fees.

But she learned earlier in the day that just the first phase of the three-phase project has been estimated to cost $264,601.25.

She had been hoping, after speaking with other circuit clerks in the area, that her office could pay for the first phase by using $100,000 from the automation fund and $50,000 from the document storage fund.

HOV Services of Rantoul, which has and continues to provide this service for other counties in this region, estimates that more than 3 million documents – covering more than 100,000 cases, will be scanned in that first phase.

That first phase includes the scanning of closed court documents in the circuit clerk’s office dating back to 1964. The second phase will include documents recorded prior to 1964, and the last phase will take in the circuit clerk’s oldest documents, ones that date back to the early 1800s.

While the funds in the automation and document storage funds should be enough to pay for the first phase, Ruot said, her office will need substantially more money to complete all three phases of the project, and also to maintain the required scanning once the old records are completed.

She said that she will likely need to hire one or two additional employees to keep up with the scanning work on a daily basis, and HOV has estimated that the equipment needed to get the county set up for ongoing scanning and storage will cost $80,000.

She said the annual salary and benefits for one new employee at this time is about $23,000.

Additional monies are also needed in the two funds, Ruot said, for the lease of a new copier for her office and the preservation of the oldest record books in her office.

The copier currently being used in the circuit clerk’s office is four years old, and Ruot has been told that that’s the average life expectancy of a copier being used by an office such as hers. “We are copying on borrowed time,” she said.

As for the old record books, which date back to the county’s beginning years, she said, “They are disintegrating right before our eyes,” Ruot said. “This is our history, and we need to do what we can to preserve it.”

The funds generated by the two fees will also be used for online services provided by the county through www.judici.com. The status of county cases is currently available on that Web site, and in the future, fines and fees could be paid through it, she said.

Several years ago, Ruot’s predecessor, Marsha Wodtka, asked the board to increase the fees. On Tuesday, board Chairman Steve Knebel explained to newer board members why the board did not approve Wodtka’s request.

“It was voted down because that money wasn’t being used,” Knebel said.

In supporting Ruot’s recommendation, Knebel said that the circuit clerk’s office recently, at the recommendation of the county’s auditor, provided the county with some monies from those two funds.