When East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court Doug Welborn took office in 1991, he said, the office was losing money “big time.’’
Welborn, who was forced to lay off more than two dozen employees that year, said the situation began to show signs of improvement in the mid-1990s.
“The real estate market started picking up for a while in ’95, ’96, ’97,’’ he said.
As the local real estate market goes, so go the fortunes of the Clerk of Court’s Office.
Unfortunately, that market hasn’t been going so well in recent years.
Welborn’s chief deputy, Greg Brown, said the real estate market has fallen off “tremendously’’ over the past three years as have real estate transaction recording fees, which the office relies on for a sizable chunk of its revenue.
The reduction in recording fee revenue has contributed to Welborn being forced to lay off employees again the past few years — 28 in 2008 and 17 in 2009, Brown said.
The clerk’s office budget for the new fiscal year — which ends June 30, 2012 — projects total revenues of $13,036,900 and total expenditures of $13,000, 200.
“We’re bringing in enough money to where we’re not in a deficit,’’ Welborn said last week.
The office projects a year-end fund balance of just over $4 million.
That’s nice, Welborn said, but it doesn’t give him much wiggle room in the event of emergencies or equipment needs.
“You never have a good level of comfort with a surplus,’’ he acknowledged.
“Equipment needs, hard times, you just never know,’’ Brown added.
Welborn, however, is optimistic.
“The real estate market is just beginning to pick up,’’ he said. “If (it) picks up, our office will do great.’’
In good times, Brown said, recording fees helped the clerk’s office operate with a monthly surplus.
But over the past three years, he said, “We’re lucky if we break even some months.’’
Brown noted that the clerk’s office recorded a surplus of $18,000 in April, which marked the first time in 39 months that the office showed positive revenue for a single month.
To keep the office’s head above water, Welborn said, some departments have been combined in addition to the periodic layoffs.
“We have such good employees. They’re like family,’’ he stressed, adding that the last raise his employees received was a 10 percent hike in the fall of 2007.
The clerk’s office pays $6.6 million annually for salaries, $2.4 million for group insurance, and $1.1 million for employee retirement benefits, which are the top three expenditures for the office, according to the budget.
Advance deposit fund transfers — or filing fees of nearly $6.5 million annually — represent the office’s biggest revenue producer, followed by recording fees of $3.6 million, the budget shows.
Welborn said the downtown-based clerk’s office employs some 163 people, including 20 at its Coursey Boulevard branch office.
The clerk’s office budget lists the Coursey condo expenses as a $121,000 expenditure, but, Welborn said, the city-parish reimburses his office.
When Mayor-President Kip Holden was trying to pass a $901 million capital improvements bond issue in the fall of 2009, he floated the idea of selling city-parish office space on Coursey and moving public agencies housed there downtown in an effort to save money by consolidating offices.
Welborn said then that Holden assured him the city-parish would continue to provide a branch office for clerk’s operations either on Coursey or elsewhere in the southeast part of the city.
Holden is once again preparing to ask voters this fall to approve a $748 million capital improvements bond package, and Welborn is once again concerned about the future of the clerk’s office space on Coursey.
“We haven’t heard a word,’’ he said. “We’ll stay out there as long as the mayor will let us.’’
Welborn said the Coursey branch is heavily used by the public. Customers can file civil, family and probate lawsuits there, and can apply for marriage licenses and passports, perform property research and take care of other business.