Spanish in the Summit County Courthouse
"Tenemos una emergencia."
this time next year, at least 16 Summit County staff members will know how to say this and other common phrases related to government business in Spanish.
Later this month, staff members from various departments will begin a year-long program to learn conversational Spanish in an effort to improve communication between county staff and the growing Latino community.
"We are going to immerse them in it so we can communicate with a segment of our community who happens to be our largest minority population in the county," Human Resources Director Brian Bellamy said. "I encourage everyone who comes here to learn English if you are going to thrive. But if there is an immediate emergency, how are we going to communicate with them?"
The program the staff will be using, Rosetta Stone, is set to begin on Feb. 28 and will last through March 27, 2016. Rosetta Stone offers an online tutorial that teaches languages through interactive software, games, and live communication with native speakers.
The program costs approximately $379 per person and is paid for out of the Human Resources Department budget.
Staff will be able to complete the online lessons either during normal work hours or on their own time, Bellamy said. The goal is to have each staff member be conversational in Spanish by the end of the lessons.
"I doubt everyone will be fluent, but they should be able to carry on a very basic, generic conversation," Bellamy said. "The more we can train our employees to reach out to the community, the better we will be."
According to 2012 census data provided by the county’s public information officer, Julie Booth, nearly 12 percent of Summit County’s population is Hispanic or Latino. Of that number, 42 percent do not speak English very well.
At the suggestion of the county’s Communications Committee, Bellamy first presented his request to the council about two years ago, but the funding wasn’t available.
"I realized we had an underserved population in the county that we can’t always communicate with," he said. "I originally asked for some money and it didn’t make it through the budget process. But now we are trying to get back to where we were and get back to doing things we should be doing."
In one of the larger budget increases since the recession, the County Council was able to approve Bellamy’s request for approximately $6,034 during the FY 2015 budget session.
Each of the 16 department heads were informed of the opportunity and advised to select one staff member who regularly communicates with the public.
Deputy Auditor Kathryn Rockhill was approached by Auditor Michael Howard to learn.
"I said I would give it a try," Rockhill said. "It would probably be helpful to be able to communicate in the language considering the things I handle in this office."
Maren Geary, the Summit County Public Works Department secretary, said she volunteered.
"I think it is important to give everyone an equal opportunity to communicate and I want to be more helpful so I can help answer any questions," Geary said. "Even being able to get out the information about recycling and garbage collection would be helpful."
There are currently few employees at the County Courthouse who can communicate in Spanish, which often leads to a mad dash around the building to find an interpreter.
According to Appraiser Mitch Ferry, a woman who used to work in facility maintenance and spoke Spanish, was often called on. But since she’s left her position, it created a void in the appraiser’s office, he said.
"There are people that come in with questions associated with their business and we also get homeowners, as well," Ferry said. "We’ve had to have them bring their children in before just to be able to communicate with us."
Ferry, who agreed to participate in the program as a representative of the appraiser’s office, already has some Spanish language experience after serving an LDS mission in Guatemala.
"I have a little back ground, but the funny thing is the language I had didn’t really equate to property taxes and things of that nature," he said. "And it was just as frustrating to me, I’m sure, as it was to them trying to communicate.
"It’d just help to be able to communicate to the public," he added. "We talk to people all the time and the best thing we can do is communicate with all the people that come in."
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Summit County officials declared their potential conflicts of interest, with Councilors Doug Clyde and Chris Robinson offering the most extensive lists on the County Council.