SPRINGFIELD — Jason Bragg has to maintain a broad perspective as Effingham County’s clerk of courts.
He deals with the latest in technology on one end and safeguards centuries-old records on the other — and there are lots of other responsibilities in between.
“I pick up something new about this job everyday — whether it be a procedure, a document or something that we keep up with such as the dam book,” Bragg said recently in his Effingham County Courthouse office. “It’s my responsibility to keep up with all the dams in the county.”
Bragg was elected clerk last summer. He succeeded Elizabeth Hursey, who held the position for 36 years before retiring.
Since there were five months left in Hursey’s final four-year term when she stepped down in August, Bragg immediately ascended to the position. Usually, he wouldn’t have started until Jan. 1.
“I had a good understanding of things in the office and some things that truly needed to be done to make it a little more efficient right out of the gate — and we’ve done those,” Bragg said. “The (extra five months) gave me an opportunity to see who is going to be loyal and who could do the job that was required of them.”
Bragg said to employees departed the office after he took it over.
“They left on their own will,” he said. “Everything else has stayed. The transition has been seamless.
“It’s been rewarding not to have a big turnover. The staff we have has been remarkable.”
The transition was smoothed by Hursey’s continued presence. She now works in the office in a part-time role.
“Her knowledge and her being here is rewarding to me,” Bragg said.
Bragg took office under unusual circumstances. Court proceedings have been curtailed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. A judicial order was issued that virtually shut courts down.
“We are still hearing some cases but it’s things that we have to do,” he said. “Some people want speedy trials and they have a right to speedy trials. If they file a motion for a speedy trial, we try to handle those as best we can.”
Bragg’s office tries to handle divorces expeditiously, too.
“If somebody wants to get divorced, there is no sense in them having to wait a year. If they are comfortable (proceeding), we are comfortable,” Bragg said. “We sanitize before and after (court sessions). The sheriff has purchased a (forehead thermometer) so you have to get your temperature checked and we do require a mask in the courtroom.”
Bragg believes it is important to keep cases moving as much as possible in order to avoid a overwhelming backlog.
“Courts that have completely shut down will never get caught up,” he said. “Shoot! In one day, you are liable to have 15 or 20 divorces.”
The clerk, who is responsible for jury administration, said judges who preside in Effingham County have been flexible. He aided their cause by securing a technology upgrade that enables courts to be conducted remotely.
Bragg has added two employees to the clerk’s office. He is planning to add one more, which would boost the number of staffers to 12.
“I took a part-time position that we had and made it a full-time position,” Bragg said. “The part-time position was for the Board of Equalization.”
The clerk’s office handles all property tax appeals. It sets up hearings and manages the required paperwork.
“In years past, we’ve had the tune of 700 or 800 appeals,” Bragg said. “(In 2020), there wasn’t very much of an millage rate increase so there were only about three hundred — which was thankful for us because it was a lot less work — so we made that a full-time position and that person will do dual roles. That person will do Superior (Court), civil and the Board of Equalization.
“Each division takes a person and some take two. Our Real Estate Division has two people.”
The workers in the Real Estate Division handle deeds, liens, plats and Fi Fas. A Fi Fa is a document issued for the purpose of recording a lien on a debtor’s property. It is also a legal instrument by which the sheriff may seize the assets of a debtor.
Bragg said his office has been handling approximately 400 traffic tickets per month, prompting him to give two employees duties tied to State Court.
“One oversees traffic and was oversees criminal (cases),” Bragg said. “The criminal (case employee) also receives (state) civil (cases), which involves anything less than $5,000.”
Senior Deputy Clerk of Court Anita Colson is working with State Court civil cases.
Bragg said divorces keep three employees busy, although they assist in other areas.
The clerk is streamlining its financial procedures, including how it pays jurors.
“Come the next jury cycle, we are going to start doing debit cards,” he said. “There will be no more checks, not more mailing them out and no more having to wait (to get paid). I can activate the debit cards the day of jury, hand them a card and everybody will have their $32 when they leave that day.
“That costs about 49 cents per debit card but it costs me 50 cents to mail a check, plus the envelopes and paper. It could cost 75 or 80 cents per check — maybe a little more.
“Plus, it’s the wrong address, you have to start all over again. I’d rather pay the folks while they are here. If they are here for three or four days, I can just reload the debit card.”
Bragg is also responsible returning the money collected for fines and fees to their respective agencies.
“We write about 80 checks per month,” he said. “We plan on getting to where we can do all that electronically soon. It will be a lifesaver to be able to click a button, send the money and be done with it.”
One of Bragg’s pressing concerns is the cramped conditions in the courthouse.
“We are all out of space — me, Probate Court, Magistrate Court,” Bragg said.
The clerk’s office doesn’t have enough room for all the desks it needs. One employee is stationed in the foyer where she scans old records so that they can be digitized.
“We’ve had to make (the foyer) an office and our conference has been made into an office,” Bragg said. “If we have too many people to come in here, we have to go into the jury deliberation room. I tried to get another desk up front but there was no way to get another person squeezed in up there.
“We have maximized our space, for sure.”
Bragg received permission from the Effingham County Commission to ease some of the space problems by moving some records to a secure off-site facility. Some had been stacked in a break room.
Despite their snug confines, employees can find records — even the county’s most ancient ones — easily. Deeds, warrants, land transactions, copies of the Effingham Herald (the legal organ), etc., are kept in filing cabinets or bound volumes that are monitored by security cameras. Some go back to the 1790.
“It’s neat to hold a 100-year-old piece of paper that we can put our hands on in 10 minutes,” Bragg said.
Transforming the office into a paperless environment is Bragg’s goal. Deeds from as far back as 1967 have been scanned so that people can view them via a computer. Plats from 1995 through today have been uploaded.
“It’s a massive undertaking,” Bragg said.
“I hope we will be more paperless than we have ever been in the first quarter of 2021,” he continued. “All of our (new) files will be e-filed at that point.”
Bragg, however, is ensuring that Effingham County’s most ancient paper records are preserved in their original form. He is enlisted the help of a company that will apply a preservative on them before encasing them in plastic.
“It is going to cost us some money but we are going to do it,” he said. “We’ve got about 25 books we need to do and it is going to cost about $3,500 to $4,500 per each one. Rome wasn’t built in a day so we will do a few books a year if we need to.
“I would like to have a game plan and budget in place for the preservation of documents.”
Bragg is currently working on a budget proposal that will be submitted to the county commission. He said the moves he has made so far, including the replacement of some carpet, a small amount of wall repainting and the additional employees, have been frugal. The new desks in the office and a computer for each one were purchased by the Georgia Clerks Authority.
“Everything I have done in the last five months came at no additional cost to the taxpayers,” he said. “It’s all been within the budget that was set by Mrs. Elizabeth in the years past.”