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ND secretary of state defends shorter hours

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BISMARCK -- Secretary of State Al Jaeger defended his decision to reduce his agency's public office hours during an appearance before state lawmakers Tuesday.

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In April, Jaeger told The Associated Press he was reducing hours to give staffers uninterrupted time to handle a steep increase in new business registrations, contractor licensing requests and other paperwork.

The office continues to have reduced hours for the public, from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. CDT.

On Tuesday, Jaeger's office asked the legislative Budget Section for three new full-time equivalent positions to help with the agency's increased workload. Legislators were asked to transfer $295,000 from the agency's operating expenses line item to the salaries and wages line item for the additional FTEs, overtime, temporary staff and salary adjustments.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, said the secretary of state's office has not asked for new employees often. He encouraged legislators to approve the request.

Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, said he's bothered by the agency's reduced hours and said he wanted office hours to return to normal if the requests were granted.

However, the legislative Budget Section does not have authority to put conditions on the requests, said Allen Knudson, legislative budget analyst and auditor.

Legislators could encourage the agency to return to regular office hours but can't mandate it, he said.

Legislators approved the secretary of state's requests and a motion encouraging the office to return to regular hours as soon as possible.

The office will return to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. hours as soon as it can, Jaeger said.

Jaeger said he doesn't regret reducing public office hours. Despite employee overtime and temporary help, the office wasn't making gains with its workload, he said.

"The biggest bottleneck in our office was people coming in," he said. "This is unfair to all of the people who submitted applications by mail."

Since public office hours were reduced to six hours a day, turn-around time has decreased by more than two weeks, he said.

"The staff is much more productive and, the fact is, during the six hours we are open, no one has lost any customer service," Jaeger said. "I'm not going to apologize for that (reducing hours) when I see my staff more productive and turning out the work for the people that are depending on my office. I think I did the right thing."

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