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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 29, 2013 5 years ago

Courthouse buzz

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Lee County Clerk of Courts Linda Doggett says she's seeing the economic recovery at the courthouse.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

Linda Doggett's office is a good barometer of the recovering economy.

The newly elected Lee County clerk of courts says her office is gaining ground on the backlog of foreclosures and the value and number of mortgage documents filed has risen. “It shows our economy going up a little bit,” Doggett says.

For example, 4,283 deeds were filed at the courthouse in December, a 4% increase over the same month in 2011. But more striking, the average value of the deeds filed in December was $122,551, a 21% increase over December 2011.

At the worst point in the economy, Lee County's courts faced a backlog of 25,000 foreclosure cases. Charlie Green, then the clerk of courts, ramped up the foreclosure hearings in a process dubbed the “rocket docket” because of its speedy efficiency, gaining national attention for his efforts.

Doggett, who was part of Green's tenure, says clearing the remaining 9,500 cases could take another two years. Many of the remaining cases are complex or delayed by one party or another. “We worked very diligently with the judges,” she says.

The foreclosure cases being filed today are evenly divided between residential and commercial real estate, but Doggett says the pace of foreclosure filings is slowing. “I don't know what normal is,” she chuckles.

Doggett recently traveled to Tallahassee, where she and other court clerks were assured of future funding. “Now we can operate without being in fear of closing our doors,” she says.

The clerk's office has been a model of efficiency, thanks in large part to the fact that Doggett was the court's information technology director for 10 years in Green's administration. Roughly 90 people of the 350-strong staff work from home with computers in departments such as accounts payable and recording. Doggett's office will begin mandatory electronic filing of documents April 1 for civil cases and Oct. 1 for criminal cases.

“If we can go paperless, we can send more people to work from home,” Doggett says. That means attorneys won't have to come to the courthouse to file and the clerk will need less office space.

Doggett concedes that it's been challenging to make the paperless shift. “In 2000 I naively said we can do this in two years,” she laughs. “I think we'll get it done this year.”

Attorneys can file electronically today and about 10% of them already do, but some will wait until the last minute. “We've been providing training for months and months,” Doggett says, promising she won't slam the paper counters shut April 1.

Technology promises to play a bigger role in the clerk's audit responsibilities of the county's budget. Doggett says she plans to implement a risk-assessment program that will flag areas of county finances that need more frequent audits. The program will be based on variables such as dollar amounts and number of employees and it will rate the risks. “We'll start early next calendar year,” Doggett says.

One of the reasons Doggett plans to use risk-assessment software is to take the politics out of the process and keep the clerk's office from being accused of targeting politicians or bureaucrats. “That's what I like about it,” she says.

One audit that will be well read when it's published next month will focus on Lee County's economic development department, for example. Her office is looking at how the county has been spending money to attract companies to the area. She declines to discuss the findings so far, but, she says: “There's always room for improvement.”

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