Probate court holds steady with aid of technology
by Amanda Ryker
Jun 08, 2012 | 1392 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tommy Loomis, who is applying for a weapons carry license, is fingerprinted by Lori Thurman. The prints are electronically transmitted to the GBI. The Probate Court performs an array of duties, which includes holding traffic court and processing marriage licenses. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
Tommy Loomis, who is applying for a weapons carry license, is fingerprinted by Lori Thurman. The prints are electronically transmitted to the GBI. The Probate Court performs an array of duties, which includes holding traffic court and processing marriage licenses. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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* Editor's Note: This is part of an ongoing series that will look at Bartow County's budget by department.

From birth to death and many things in between, Bartow's Probate Court serves as the record-keeper for several life events. Technology improvements have helped keep documents in order, with only one employee being added in more than 20 years.

"We do probate work, which involves probating wills and doing guardianships," Probate Court Judge Mitchell Scoggins said. "We also do vital records -- which are birth and death records -- and we issue marriage licenses."

With nine full-time employees, eight of whom are clerks, the department stays busy all year on its $817,600 budget. Of that, $445,000 is split between the employees for salaries. Adding computers to the department has improved services while keeping the employee number to a minimum.

"We have one more employee than I did when I started 24 years ago," Scoggins said. "Just having computers and modern-day facilities have helped us keep our personnel down to a minimum and the technology has helped us a lot. When I came into office, there were no computers in the office."

Wills and vital records are not the only movement through the department as the probate court also issues concealed weapons and carry permits and hears traffic cases.

"The biggest traffic that we have coming in the probate court is from traffic court," Scoggins said, noting that traffic court is the largest revenue generator and sees the highest volume of people served through the office.

According to Scoggins, the court sees an average of 10,000 traffic cases in a year, which total to more than $1 million.

"Our intake is more than our outtake," Scoggins said.

Guardianships overseen by the court are mainly for incapacitated adults, "which are people who are suffering from some incapacitation, mental or physical," Scoggins said. "We also do temporary guardianships for minor children."

In conducting the business of the court, cases are heard and attorneys are appointed by the court to represent involved parties. For such cases, $26,000 is designated for court appointed attorneys.

"[Those fees] are for a court appointed attorney [who would represent] a ward [that someone is] trying to do a guardianship on," Scoggins said. "We would appoint an attorney for that person to make sure their rights are not being violated and the guardianship is needed as requested."

Professional fees, set at $80,000, are similar to court-appointed attorneys but serve a different purpose as they are used for other types of legal representation.

"We have public defenders and a solicitor in the probate court, which prosecute and represent defendants in traffic cases," Scoggins said. "They are picked by the court."

As the laws and Georgia Code change annually, the court has $1,000 budgeted for books and periodicals.

Keeping up with the code, Scoggins explained that the law regarding qualifications for probate judges has changed.

"I would be grandfathered [in]," Scoggins said. "I am a late judge, which means I do not have a law degree. Now, anyone who qualified to run for this job would have to be a practicing attorney and would have to have practiced law seven years prior to qualifying. The probate court now would be able to hold jury trials. A jury trial could be held on anything that is a probate issue, which would be probate of a will, a contested guardianship, anything like that. Anyone that asks for a jury trial with a traffic case would be transferred to Superior Court, which they have to do by law."

Continued education is required for the judge and clerks as well as payment of dues and fees for various associations. Dues and fees claim $1,000 while education costs are budgeted at $2,500 and travel to education sessions is set at $3,500.

"We have the probate judges retirement fund, which requires us to go to a certain amount of training every year and those dues are paid to the Probate Judges Association," Scoggins said. "We also have clerks training, which our clerks are required to do mandatory training each year. There's a fee for a part of that [education and] I have to go to three different trainings every year in April, June and November [and they are] either in Athens or Savannah."

Other costs associated with the department include repair and maintenance of office equipment at $9,500; office supplies at $10,000; telephone expenses at $5,000; and a judge pro-tem if the current judge has a conflict in the presented case, which is budgeted at $1,500.