Columbus closing creates confusion

Published 10:08 pm Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The closing of most offices in the Chilton County Courthouse on Monday may open a new discussion on when the building can be closed and by whom.

Commissioners questioned during their meeting Tuesday why offices were closed for all or part of Columbus Day, which wasn’t a county holiday. The matter becomes more complicated because Alabama Power was expected to do work on transformers near the courthouse Monday.

The courthouse would have likely been closed if power was turned off, but when rains prevented the electrical work from being done, employees should have reported to or stayed at work, said Commission Chairman Tim Mims.

“I guess every office in the courthouse was closed after 2:30 p.m. [except for the county commission office and the industrial development board],” said Mims.

The tax collector’s and sheriff’s offices didn’t open Monday, while the tax assessor’s and probate judge’s departments closed at 2:30 p.m., according to Mims. The county’s business day for most offices ends at 4 p.m.

The commission chairman has traditionally approved any closings, said attorney Hollis Jackson. The commission as a whole approves county holidays.

Sheriff Kevin Davis said the commission office told him during the middle part of last week that the courthouse would be closed Monday, but then he was told Friday the courthouse might or might not be open.

Davis said he wasn’t going to ask his four courthouse employees to drive to work to see if they had power or not.

“There’s no reason for them to be there and us pay them if we don’t have power. I would have basically been paying people to sit there,” said Davis. “I’ve got some ladies that live 20 to 25 miles away. I wasn’t going to ask them to drive that far to find out if we were going to work or not.”

The sheriff said his employees would either take comp time or personal days they have earned in place of the day off.

Probate Judge Bobby Martin said he allowed his employees to leave at 3 p.m., after an exceptionally slow day.

“We didn’t take in enough to pay the clerks that were sitting there,” said Martin.

Tax Collector Tim Little said his office closed after workers unanimously voted to all take personal days.

He said his office could have done some things, but couldn’t have renewed any tags because of the state holiday. He said customers would wonder why his office was open when they couldn’t take care of business or buy tags.

Still, most commissioners felt the chairman should have been notified about closings.

“My concern going forward is that we have a procedure for closing the courthouse. I would like to see that either changed or followed,” said Commissioner Bobby Agee.

The issue is a common — especialy around holidays — and complex one, said Sonny Brashfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

Brashfield said the county commission can’t require elected officials to keep their individal offices open, but then again, they don’t have to pay employees who aren’t working.

Brashfield said only the commission has the authority to close courthouses entirely.

Brashfield said in similar situations elsewhere, employees are required to take the time from their personal leave or give the money back.

Mims has asked for a copy of the next payroll and said the commission would make a decision from there.

“My personal opinion is those employees should not be paid…give up a vacation day,” said Mims. “For those employees that left at 2:30 p.m., they shouldn’t be paid for that hour and a half.”