By Gary Blankenship
“No guns, no knives, no bazookas, no grenades.”
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, chair of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, had those words, perhaps only partially joking, as he convened a March 5 meeting to hear from state courts officials and representatives of court clerks. The issue was whether clerks are operating efficiently and transparently, and providing good services to the courts.
The committee, Crist noted, was not hearing bills that have been filed that would transfer some filing fees and other revenues from clerks and the state general revenue fund to the court. Those bills also call for transferring some of the clerks’ court support functions to the courts.
Rather, he said, the meeting was a chance for both sides to — civilly — present their cases.
There were no firearm discharges, but there was a barrage of facts, figures, and PowerPoint slides in the more than two-hour meeting.
Court officials, led by State Court Administrator Lisa Goodner and Trial Court Budget Commission Chair Judge Belvin Perry, talked about the clerks’ rising incomes from fees at a time the courts are having cutbacks. They also pointed to the problems of 20 chief circuit judges trying to deal with getting computerized data and other records from 67 independently elected court clerks.
Representatives for the clerks, led by Sarasota Clerk of the Court Karen Rushing and John Dew, executive director of the Clerks of Court Operating Corporation, talked about the layered oversight and efficiencies expected when the courts go to electronic filing. They noted that clerks’ budgets are tied by law to their workloads and the fees, fines, and other costs they collect.
Dew pointedly warned that recent increases in clerk collections have been because of burgeoning foreclosure cases around the state. That’s expected to peak and then decline in the next year or two, and the clerks would see revenue shortfalls that, percentage-wise, dwarf those faced by the state.
Hillsborough County Clerk of the Court Pat Frank warned that separating court functions from the clerks would not be easy. Some clerk employees perform work for both county and court functions. And sometimes, she said, employees are shuttled from county jobs to court supporting jobs and vice versa as the workload shifts. Taking away the clerks’ court functions would end that efficiency as well as create a nightmare of contract and other logistical problems.
A sore point for some committee members was raises and bonuses recently given out by clerks while state agencies and other local governments have been freezing wages and laying off workers. Judge Perry said public information requests had been sent to all the clerks, and of the 42 who have responded, 32 reported recently handing out “bonuses, merit increases, longevity increases or cost of living adjustments.” Of those, 16 reported giving out more than one type of salary boost.
The presentations went on for so long that Crist cut them off, and the meeting ended with senators still having questions.
But Crist summed up what he saw as the challenge facing lawmakers for this session.
“What is the quickest, cheapest, most efficient way of getting the services done efficiently and in a user friendly way,” he said. “If that means transferring it to the courts, so be it. If it means keeping it with the clerks and fine tuning it, so be it.
“We’re going to have to look at how to do this and that’s what we’re going to have to concentrate on for the next six weeks.”
Crist acknowledged that bonuses by clerks have created a perception problem, but added he thinks it’s only been a problem with a few clerks.
But he also warned, “At this junction, I think the clerks need to understand that the court is the consumer [of information and data received by the clerks] and they’ve got to be happy with the product. They’ve got to get it in a way they need it and they’ve got to get it in a way they can use it and they’ve got to be able to get it from one circuit to another.”
The committee also will be concerned with how revenues are collected and disbursed, Crist said, because of the state’s tight finances. One item he specifically mentioned is that the panel might look at basing court funding on its workload, similar to the way clerks are funded.
“There are a lot of variables here that are worthy of consideration in determining what is best,” Crist said. “I want to assure the courts, your recommendations and proposals are being considered very seriously in the House and Senate and that’s why we’re here today. And for the clerks, your concerns are being considered,
“We’re going to be very judicious in how we look at this in being fair to both sides of the issue.”