Providing a greater level of service with fewer resources has become the new norm for county officials in Tennessee where, despite a growing population inching toward 7 million, maintaining the most basic county services such as schools, law enforcement, roads and bridges is becoming more fiscally difficult.
One would think the increased number of new taxpayers would cover the cost of maintaining the status quo. However, like their constituents, county officials are not content with running in place without bettering their communities through improved quality and timely service. They ran for office or were appointed to make the best better, to borrow a phrase from the Boy Scouts.
Hamilton County Juvenile Court Clerk Gary Behler and his staff are examples of how Tennessee county officials are facing that task. They just celebrated the completion of a years-long initiative to create a digital solution that allows his staff, the juvenile court judge and court magistrates to quickly reference more than 4 million documents managed by the office. The technology solution, in which every paper document was scanned and indexed for searchability, helps officials make more immediate and effective decisions on behalf of children and families who pass through their Hamilton County office.
In everyday terms, imagine your own computer or television habits. We walk around with laptop computers and cellphones and enjoy instant access to the web. In fact, we can even watch our favorite football game live or a two-hour hit movie from our portable electronic devices, whether we are sitting on a park bench or standing in line to get our vehicle tags renewed.
Now imagine if that were to go away, if our search for answers, instead, led us back to our bookcases, if television was enjoyed only at home in front of a stationary set. It was similar at the juvenile court clerk's office. Heavy files, some thousands of pages, were needed for a single minor's case. They had to be lugged back and forth to the courtroom. Searches within those files were done by hand, a tedious process that made productivity slow as the judge and other court staff waited. In turn, customers, attorneys, law enforcement and others also waited.
Is the picture bleak enough? It made for some tedious, grueling days.
Now those same documents can be put in front of the judge at most any time — at a pre-hearing, on weekends when an incident involving a juvenile occurs, during emergencies when a child's safety warrants immediate attention. The judge needs the ability to make a decision without calling court staff to get those documents, and now the data is available.
According to Gary Hayes of the University of Tennessee County Technical Assistance Service (UT CTAS), who provides direct assistance to Hamilton County, the Hamilton County Office of Juvenile Court Clerk is the first in the state to implement such a digital system for its daily workflow.
So, while new carpet soon will don the hallways and office of the juvenile court clerk, the change in operations that Behler and his staff have embraced is the one that merits accolades.
Its relative cost will offset the likes of overtime pay for employees who had to drive to the office, collect appropriate case files and appear before the judge; security for such events; and long-term file storage.
Day in and day out, Tennessee counties are bettering their communities by making investments worth the public's time and energy.
As for Behler, the completion of this project means one thing. Now he can turn his attention to even greater efficiencies, perhaps an e-filing process for court documents, further lessening the paper that comes through the front door.
Brett Howell is a veteran communications specialist for Middle Tennessee-based UT CTAS.