Longer the wait, shorter the patience at satellite courthouse
By Gary Lloyd
It’s 6:48 a.m. on July 31, and a pickup truck slowly curves right into the parking lot of the Center Point Satellite Courthouse.
A line of people, some retired for years, some who will miss half a day’s pay, some too young to have a full-time job, already snakes out from under the building’s awning and extends down a short sidewalk. The man in the pickup truck hurriedly walks toward the line of people, a bill of sale and vehicle title in one hand, a red-and-black umbrella in the other. The weather outlook is awful on July 31, the day of realization for most that it’s deadline day for renewing the tags for their two-door sports cars and gas-guzzling SUVs. This makes for a long, irritable line.
The man stands about 40 people deep, behind some of the older people waking themselves up with hot coffee, the younger generation head-bobbing to loud music on iPods. A middle-aged man sits in a cushioned folding chair, reading an automobile magazine. He puffs his way through three Marlboro cigarettes while waiting. A teenage boy’s spot in line is held by a friend while he rushes to the street just in front of the building, where his mom has arrived with a foldout chair from home. The awning column he’s been leaning on just isn’t comfortable.
A man and his wife are in the front of the line, faces practically pressed to the front door’s glass, and they seem to be the only ones content. They’ll be first to be waited on, and that achievement comes at the expense of a 3 a.m. alarm. The husband says the couple has been camped out since 3:45 a.m., and jaws drop. Seven in the morning must feel like lunch time to them.
“That’s absolutely insane that people have to do that,” says Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight.
The sky blackens and a few raindrops begin to fall at about 7:35 a.m. At this point, the line has taken another turn, about 20 yards into the side parking lot, slowly making the movements of those computer screensaver 3-D pipes. Everyone scrunches into side-by-side lines under the awning, each spying on others to make sure there is no line jumping. One woman takes charge of the new arrivals, telling them the line starts over there, pointing left. Some drop their heads and take their spot, accepting the fact that they’re about to be here a long, long time. Others say “Heck no!” and leave, jogging through the now pouring rain back to their vehicles.
The front doors open at 8 a.m. and not a second sooner, despite most people’s clothes drenching wet because of high winds blowing the rain under the awning. Those fed up with the county speculate that the doors can’t be opened sooner because how does a bankrupt county justify overtime pay for its employees?
Once inside, everyone waits some more, now sitting in red chairs. One employee checks each person’s paperwork — proof of insurance, driver’s license, VIN numbers, more. A girl sitting two spots down from the man who came in the pickup truck is turned away. She’s waited since 6:45 a.m. and has now been told she doesn’t have the necessary paperwork. She says it’s her fourth time attempting to take care of whatever business she’s here to do, and the fourth time the employees have told her something different. She storms out. Knight says he “absolutely” hears complaints about the satellite courthouse, which reopened last April.
“I hear a long wait time, not enough people on the windows,” he says. “I hear rude tellers. I hear they’re taking a break too soon. I hear there are too many people standing around. I hear they’re talking instead of working. I’ve heard it all, I think.”
Most of the Mayberry-slow pace inside the courthouse is because of outdated technology. Knight says Jefferson County is “negotiating” on new software and hardware so that employees can speed things up. The targeted date for the new technology is Oct. 1.
Knight says he “frequently” visits the courthouse, though he’s careful not to direct any of the employees, because that is against the rules. He mostly visits with the people deciding between the “God Bless America” and “Sweet Home Alabama” vehicle tags, apologizing for the long waits, promising a better future.
“If I could change things, my gosh, I would change things,” Knight says.
The man is now the next to be called. Hearing “Next!” here sounds like a winning lottery number, and the man walks with an extra pep in his step when that magic word is called out at 9:06 a.m. The clerk who calls him has many desk items, from tag decals and receipts to glass frames that hold Bible verses and words of encouragement.
“Those girls are some sweet girls,” says Knight, who admits he couldn’t do what they do every day, enduring the piercing stares, accepting the angry voices.
The man who came in the pickup truck has completed the transfer of a vehicle title at 9:23 a.m., two hours and 35 minutes after taking his spot in line. What looks to be a couple hundred people still fill the waiting area of the courthouse when he leaves, hoping they’ll leave by lunchtime, at the latest.
“To get a car tag in most counties, it’s a pleasurable experience,” Knight says. “You can go in on your lunch hour. You can’t do that here in Jefferson County, and I’m sorry about that. I wish I could change it. We’re doing our best to change it.”
Contact Gary Lloyd at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.