Adjusting to the virtual world

Technology, creative steps could remain for Texas counties

By Tonyia Cone

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When the COVID-19 pandemic brought business to a halt in March 2020, Texas county officials quickly found virtual ways to continue serving their communities. Now, as the world finds its way back to normal, county leaders plan to continue using some of the technology that made business possible when offices were shuttered and the pandemic put the brakes on travel.

“Most are going to keep other processes because it’s convenient for a lot of people to do from their home, so a lot of them will go to a hybrid situation,” said Alan Bristol, County Relations Officer for the Texas Association of Counties (TAC).

Public-facing county offices, including tax offices and county clerk offices, created ways to minimize foot traffic. Many counties incorporated drop boxes for paperwork such as property tax payments and vehicle registrations. TAC 2020 Best Practice Awards were given to Kaufman County for its use of videoconferencing and electronic-signature software to verify and issue marriage licenses, and Tarrant County in recognition of the county clerk’s computer kiosk that enabled the verification and issuance of marriage licenses. Most West Texas counties already used online payment systems, and some started offering electronic record filing for marriage and deed records.

Increased dependence on online services created solutions to longtime challenges such as the need for better online security and internet availability. TAC’s County Information Resources Agency (TAC CIRA) assisted some counties with converting to Microsoft 365 for its robust security package, and Bristol believes funding from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 may be used for technology upgrades.

Before the pandemic, probate courts in many large counties offered streamlined hearings, submission of paperwork after hearings, and immediate filing of deed record documents, said Wood County Judge Lucy Hebron. Some of this technology was mandated during the pandemic, and smaller counties now offer these efficient services.

Hebron has had to troubleshoot problems when parties have struggled to get their audio or video to work properly, but in general, Wood County attorneys and staff have embraced the shift to virtual.

“We will continue to use many of these same timesavers and options. It’s all about time,” Hebron said. “Time is money, and if we can save the taxpayers money, we are doing our job well.”

Emily Miskel, Local Administrative District Judge in Collin County, said moving judicial functions to virtual platforms has disproved concerns that those lacking access to technology would be excluded.

“This has really exposed how many people use our justice system and that were excluded by things when we required them to come in person,” she said, noting that the transportation, child care and time off work needed to attend court in person were significant barriers. “What we’ve seen is increased participation.”

Miskel has seen self-represented litigants perform better remotely, when they are in a more familiar place than a courtroom. She has heard those involved in family violence protective order cases express feeling safer in a virtual setting than at a courthouse within view of the involved family member.

“The value of this has been proven over the past year,” she said, adding that with the help of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the cost to counties of equipment to conduct virtual meetings should not be a barrier.

While routine cases can be well suited for online hearings, Hebron pointed out, criminal hearings pose different challenges. Virtual court complicates defendants' due process rights and invites parties to treat a court hearing with less formality.

“When you do Zoom or FaceTime, people don’t realize they are in court. They’re driving in their car; they’re smoking cigarettes,” Knox County Judge Stan Wojcik said, while acknowledging that it does make sense to hold simple probate hearings virtually to save time and attorney expenses. “There’s something about coming into the courtroom. It’s a different mindset.”

Wojcik said he looks forward to returning to in-person court as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, the fourth-least populous county in Texas, Borden County, never closed its offices.

Sheriff Benny Allison said residents “social-distance by nature anyway.” Borden County officials created a plan in case they had to close their offices, and staff attended state agency and organization meetings and training events online. 

Allison’s office drew from its equipment budget to purchase the only technology cost the county incurred during the pandemic — a television so staffers could sit together to attend virtual events.  

A larger savings on travel expenses offset the TV’s cost, and staying in town made scheduling easier, so Allison expects virtual training to continue.    

“This just pushed everybody further down the path we were going anyway,” he said.