When a longtime employee who was also the only black employee in the St. James Parish Clerk of Court’s Office was asked to retire at the end of May, it upset many black residents in the area.
Representatives of the St. James Parish National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and local residents gathered at the courthouse in Convent for several days to protest the end of Rita Cooper’s 43-year career as a clerk in the parish office.
“The retirement papers are still sitting on my desk at work,” Cooper, whose last day was May 31, said Wednesday.
“I have never filled them out. I don’t believe what he’s done is fair,” she said of Clerk of Court Edmond Kinler.
“People were upset the last black employee left,” she said.
Kinler said, however, that in addition to Cooper he has been forced in recent years to ask other, white employees who have accrued retirement benefits to retire because the Clerk’s Office is so cash-strapped.
“Over the last eight-and-a-half years, we’ve been having a budget crisis,” he said.
It’s a problem many clerk of courts’ offices across the state are seeing, said Debbie Hudnall, executive director of the Louisiana Clerks of Court Association, based in Baton Rouge.
State law mandates that the clerk of court’s office in each parish operate on the fees it generates from the services it provides, she said.
“The clerk of court gets no money from the state or local government or tax dollars,” Hudnall said.
A handful of parishes may have the funds to voluntarily help support the operations of the local clerk of court’s offices, but that’s the exception, she said.
Parish governments do provide the building for the office as well as equipment, but the clerk of court relies after that on fees, she said.
The offices handle the records of everything from marriage licenses, birth certificates and land records to civil suits and criminal cases with fees set by the state Legislature for all its services.
But outside forces can affect those funds, Hudnall said.
Small rural parishes that don’t see a lot of development or land sales don’t generate many property filings, for instance, she said.
Recently, she said, parishes where there was oil activity are no longer seeing as many leases recorded with the clerk of court in light of the downturn in the industry.
“Anything dealing with property is dependent on the economy,” she said.
And in civil and criminal proceedings, the clerk of court pays for the services of those who are unable to pay court costs and have been granted the status of “forma pauperis” by the courts, she said.
“We’ve had more clerks retire this time than we ever had,” Hudnall said.
The four-year terms for the state’s clerks of court ended June 30, and 17 retired this summer compared to 12 in 2012, she said.
“I had more new clerks than I ever had before,” Hudnall said.
Some of the former clerks of court who retired this year left office even before their terms were up, she said, “because of the finances in their offices.”
“We see the number of (clerk of court) employees continue to go down,” Hudnall said.
Kinler, who has served as clerk of court for St. James Parish for 44 years, was recently sworn into office again for another four years.
But he said he won’t be seeking the office again.
“I’m tired of fighting this thing,” Kinler said of the financial difficulties.
Over the last eight-and-a-half years, the St. James Parish Clerk of Court’s office has gone from nine to five employees, Kinler said.
The office closed a satellite location in Vacherie, and Kinler asked three employees in recent years, who were able to retire — in addition to Cooper — to do so, he said.
It was a way, he said, to avoid “financial hardship” for people who couldn’t retire.
Retirement benefits max out for employees with 33 years of service who get 100 percent of their pay, Hudnall said.
Retirees also continue to get insurance.
Hudnall said that she and others with the state Clerks of Court Association had talked with several legislators before this year’s legislative session about the financial challenges for the clerks’ offices but soon “saw the writing on the wall.”
“The state has no money” to fix the problem, she said.