March 05, 2021

Some Jasper County offices reluctant to fully re-open to the public

Even if positivity rates reduce, staff worry non-local traffic could be overwhelming

Until the positivity rates in the region reduce considerably and a vaccine is more widely distributed across the state and neighboring counties, Jasper County Recorder Denise Allan is not comfortable putting her staff at risk by fully reopening her office to the public for in-person appointments.

Currently, the recorder’s office is fully functional, and business is going rather well, Allan said. Two weeks ago, her office — which is responsible for maintaining official real estate records and issuing boat licenses, hunting licenses and ATV registrations, among other things — reported a strong surge in revenue.

In December, the Jasper County Recorder’s Office brought in about $70,000.

“I don’t want people to think we’re sitting in here not doing anything, because we’re working full force in here,” Allan told Newton News.

But those aren’t the numbers Allan is worried about.

Positivity rates in Jasper County need to reduce before Allan considers fully reopening. As of Jan. 18, Jasper County Health Department said the county’s 14-day positivity rate of COVID-19 testing was 14.3%. The 50208 Newton zip code is sitting at 13.1%, while the 50228 Prairie City zip code is at 24.3%.

According to www.coronavirus.iowa.gov, Jasper County’s percentage of positive cases in the past 14 days is about 15%, while the adjacent Polk County is 13%, Warren County 16%, Marion County 14%, Marshall County 5% and Poweshiek County 5%.

If the Jasper County Recorder’s Office only provided services to its citizens, other counties’ positivity rates wouldn’t pose a problem. However, a number of customers are not local. If the office reopened for in-person appointments for all, Allan worries staff could be overwhelmed.

As much as she wants to re-open, Allan wants to do so when it’s safe for her, her staff and the customers.

“The public is very important to me — they’re No. 1 to us,” Allan said. “But I have to think of my staff. I’m waiting right now for us to get our vaccinations. I know we’re going to get them at some point because we’re considered frontline workers … When we get inoculated that will be an important factor for me.”

Despite some resistance, the county recorder’s office and the driver’s license/motor vehicle department closed their doors to the public last year. Employees were still working and adapting their services to better adhere to health officials’ social distancing standards. Although challenging, the changes seemed to stick.

Eventually, the driver’s license/motor vehicle department had to prevent customers from outside Jasper County from scheduling appointments. Jasper County Treasurer Doug Bishop told supervisors in August that providing services to folks outside the county normally isn’t a problem.

Still, Bishop argued it was preventing local taxpayers from receiving services.

Modifying the driver’s license/motor vehicle department ever since Iowa was first declared a pandemic has been challenging for staff. Presently, the department is maintaining its distanced services by having customers wait in the hallway, all the while trying to remain speedy and efficient for Jasper County citizens.

“It has definitely been a very trying eleven months,” Bishop told Newton News last week. “We have had to adjust our entire workflow and structure. We have done that and taken care of our business in the most efficient manner possible but more importantly, a safe manner.”

Bishop continued, “Jasper County Citizens pay property taxes that fund our operation. And Jasper County citizens pay property taxes that pay our salaries. I will always make sure Jasper County citizens’ needs are taken care of first. We owe them that much in my opinion.”

For some time, the recorder’s office staff was able to hold one-on-one appointments with customers outside its second floor space in the Jasper County Courthouse. Workers wore masks and socially distanced themselves from any visitors. Doors were locked. Customers had to call in for assistance.

“We did that for a long time and that was working well for us,” Allan said. “… We knew when someone was out there. We would go out with our masks and wait on people. It went terrifically. We had no problems. Once in a while we’d catch grief from people about the masks thing.”

Prior to Thanksgiving, Allan noticed Jasper County’s positivity rates began to climb considerably. Around the same time, Newton schools — the closest district to the Jasper County offices — had transitioned to fully remote learning. On Nov. 12, Allan put an end to the one-on-one meets.

Per the county recorder’s website, office business is now only conducted online or by phone or mail until further notice.

“I know it’s an inconvenience to people, (but) COVID is an inconvenience to people — period,” Allan said.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com