GARNER | The Hancock County Board of Supervisors is discussing whether severe winter weather, like the 10-plus inches of snow and blizzard conditions in late February, is cause enough to close the county courthouse, and if so, how it should be done.
On Monday, March 11, County Attorney Blake Norman presented the supervisors a draft policy outlining how the courthouse would be closed in weather emergencies, who’d make the decision and how employees would be affected, during their weekly meeting.
”We have to have a mechanism in place, so if this happens we know what we’re going to do,” he said. “That’s my biggest concern ... It would be beneficial to have something in place so that everyone knows this is what’s going to happen.”
Currently, the county doesn’t have a policy related to closing the courthouse. Instead, department heads are tasked with making the decision for their departments, and employees are forced to use a vacation day or go unpaid.
The strong winter storm on Feb. 23-24 that closed roads, schools, businesses and government offices across North Iowa and a large portion of the Midwest prompted Norman to examine other counties weather-emergency policies; they varied greatly.
“We live in North Iowa. The weather has seemed to be getting more extreme lately ... I just thought it would be something to at least talk about,” Norman said.
Nearly 20 people, including department heads and employees, attended the meeting Monday to listen and weigh in on the board’s discussion of the policy.
Under the proposed policy, modeled after Polk County, the board chair, who is currently Jerry Tlach, would determine whether conditions warranted closing all courthouse offices — with the exception of essential county functions like secondary roads, maintenance, dispatch and the sheriff’s office.
The policy doesn’t outline how the board chair would make that decision, but Norman said, it’d likely come after consulting with individuals in the sheriff’s office, secondary roads and dispatch.
“This policy is for employees, but it’s even more for the public, so we don’t have someone trying to get here in a snowstorm,” he said.
The auditor would notify employees and media outlets via email of the courthouse’s closure, which County Auditor Michelle Eisenman said she supported a policy that makes the process “standard” and “uniform” for all county offices.
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County employees would still get paid if the courthouse closed due to a weather-emergency; however, if an individual department chooses to close because of weather when the courthouse doesn’t, their employees would have to use a vacation day or go unpaid.
“I don’t know that is going to bode well with some of the taxpayers since the office is closed and they’re still getting paid,” said Supervisor Gary Rayhons. “I mean this happens once about every 10 years, even if you close it ... you still know you’re going to get those one or two people who don’t listen to it on the radio, don’t see it on media, they’re still going to end up in the courthouse parking lot and they’re going to be mad.
“How do you approach it to make everybody happy? That’s the problem I have with coming to a policy that’s going to be acceptable by all.”
Norman estimated the courthouse would be closed one or two days a year due to “very extreme,” “cannot make it in” weather.
The policy doesn’t define essential employees or state additional benefits for the employees who are required to work when the courthouse closes. They’d be paid at their normal rate.
Andy Buffington, Hancock County Communications, Zoning and E911 director, said he’d like to see essential employees, like his dispatchers, receive some kind of benefit since they’re actually clocking hours while the courthouse is closed.
“If you’re going to do something like this, making sure it’s fair to those folks who don’t have a choice,” he said.
To do that, the supervisors will likely have to make an adjustment to the county’s personnel policy.
After an hour-long discussion, the County Board agreed to continue the conversation at 10 a.m. on March 25.