Florida’s clerks of court are expecting a change this year in the way the state funds their offices, but they don’t know yet whether it will be better or worse than the system they say has left them underfunded since 2009, when lawmakers changed the way court fines and fees had been distributed in Florida for 164 years.
The state House and Senate both have bills to return to a system similar to the pre-2009 method of funding the state’s 67 clerks, but Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock warns the Senate version would “mean more layoffs, more closures and an inability for us to be able service the citizens and the attorneys and the judiciary.”
After four years of staff reductions and increased backlogs of cases, “we simply would not have enough money to be able to have the resources we need to do our statutorily required jobs,” Bock said of the Senate bill. “I’m not talking Cadillac service here. I’m talking about the bare basics like getting a file in front of a judge, the real nuts and bolts running of the court system.”
Before 2009, the fees and other court revenue that clerks collected flowed first to the clerks for their budgets, with the excess going to the state’s general revenue for the Legislature to distribute to other areas, including the judges, state attorneys and public defenders of the state’s 20 judicial circuits. In 2009, in an effort to grab a surplus of court funding resulting from an increase in foreclosure filings, the Legislature required the clerks to submit their budgets to the Legislature for approval and to send the fees they collected to the state first, with the first $80 of each filing fee being redirected to general revenue.
The 2009 law also required the clerks to start basing their budgets on an average cost per case and to start paying the state Department of Revenue an 8 percent service fee that was already charged to most state agencies.
“The last three years have been dreadful, absolutely dreadful,” said Sarasota County Clerk of Courts Karen Rushing, legislative chairwoman of the Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers. “We never know when the money’s coming in. You don’t know if you can make payroll but you have all of these statutory mandates you have to meet. It’s not a way to run a business. It is a total micromanagement on a projected basis that is not reliable and predictable. And look at the results after three years of micromanagement: layoffs, closing of offices, reducing hours, backlog.”
This year, both the House and Senate would take the clerks out of the general revenue fund and do away with the 8 percent service fee, a savings for the clerks and a loss to the state of about $32 million each year.
Both chambers have also agreed to maintain the clerks’ current $443 million funding level next year.
But the House proposal, which the clerks support, would let the clerks keep the first $80 of filing fees in civil fees. Under the Senate plan, the clerks would get just $5 of the filing fees, which would put them in the red, Bock said.
Senate negotiators said the two chambers are still working out details, including how much of the filing fees clerks would get to keep and how much oversight the Legislature would retain over the clerks’ budgets.
Besides taking away the clerks’ control of their funding in 2009, the Legislature has cut the overall budget for the clerks each year since then, including a $31 million cut last year. And the clerks have had to come back to the Legislature for $164 million in emergency funds to cover deficits during that time. This year, the clerks are running a $17 million deficit.
Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said he wants a different funding system to keep the clerks from “running hat in hand to the Legislature” every year.
“Every year we have drama and uncertainty with regard to funding the clerks. There’s no logical reason it should be that way. The clerks are a very important part of our legal system. They collect the fines and fees remitted to the state and they’re entitled to a reasonable amount of money to fund their operations,” Negron said.
But lawmakers say they still need to ensure that clerks are spending money wisely.
Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said the general plan is to have the Legislature first approve a maximum budget for clerks each year and then give the Legislative Budget Commission, which approves budget adjustments for state agencies and other entities when the Legislature is not in session, the ability to approve clerks’ individual budgets with some adjustments based on additional new duties or extra judges. The commission would also have the power to identify and reduce budgets of “outlier clerks” whose spending is not line with the rest of the state.
“I’m quite comfortable that the place that we’re going to end up is a place where the taxpayer dollars are going to be protected,” Bradley said Tuesday.