‘We have a moral obligation to look at every efficiency we can'
By Gary Blankenship
Bills filed in the Florida Legislature would reroute some of the filing fees collected by the clerks of court directly to the court system to help the courts cope with their ongoing budget crisis.
Some of those fees now go to the clerks and others go to the state’s general revenue fund.
The bills also would redirect some court-supporting functions in order to promote operational efficiencies.
HB 1121 was introduced in the House by Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Ft. Lauderdale, and SB 2108 was introduced in the upper chamber by Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. Bogdanoff is chair of the Finance and Tax Council, and also serves on the Rules and Calendar Council and the Policy Council. Pruitt is immediate past Senate president and chairs the Policy and Steering Committee on Social Responsibility, and sits on the Policy and Steering Committee on Ways and Means and the Finance and Tax Committee.
The bills incorporate many of the goals spelled out by Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince for improving operational efficiencies and financing the court system, although those goals do not specifically call for absorbing some clerk functions into the courts. (See story in the March 1 Bar News.)
The Bar’s Executive Committee has also approved two new legislative positions. One puts the Bar in support of the seven principles outlined by Quince to achieve stable financing for the courts. The second puts the Bar on record as favoring “further legislative review of court-related functions now provided by Florida’s clerks of court.”
The committee acted on February 23, shortly before the two bills were filed.
The Florida Association of Court Clerks and Comptrollers has criticized the bills. The clerks support better funding for the courts, including surplus fees generated by the clerks. But they oppose giving up their court-supporting functions.
The dispute has set off a flurry of charges, counter-charges, and competing facts and figures from courts and clerks. But Rep. Bogdanoff said it’s wrong to look at the bill as a clerk/court conflict.
“I think there’s a perception out there this is a big power grab by the courts. This has nothing to do with the courts,” she said.
Instead, it’s about what Bogdanoff sees as a lack of accountability and transparency in clerks’ operations, where she said there could be as much as a $200 million savings that the state desperately needs as it faces a multi-billion dollar budget shortfall.
“Because there is no transparency and no accountability to any other entity, what you have is abuse. We have a moral obligation to look at every efficiency we can,” she said. “Everything that I filed this year is about creating governmental efficiency, streamlining. It’s something we should be doing every year we are elected.”
Fred Baggett, general counsel for the clerks’ association, disagreed with Bogdanoff’s assertions on savings.
“It’s not only contrary to the intent, expectation, and language of the constitution and what the people expect, but operationally it makes no sense the courts can provide those services cheaper or better than the clerks,” he said.
“The clerks have been supportive of the court system having a sustainable, dedicated funding source,” Baggett added, including backing dedicated trust funds to make court funding more secure.
He said clerks were “shocked” at comments made at the Bar’s court funding summit in January about the supposed lack of accountability for clerks, and even more shocked by Bogdanoff’s and Pruitt’s bills.
The proposed bills state that the Legislature intends “a thorough review be conducted of the business processes by which the clerk of court provides court-related services. In this time of curtailed state resources, it is the further intent of the Legislature to eliminate bureaucracy and the duplication of effort by providing additional legislative and judicial oversight of the provision of court-related services.”
The legislation mandates that beginning with the next budget year, the Legislature will designate up to five circuits a year where 15 court-related functions of the court clerks will be transferred to the state court system.
Those include case management; records management; processing the assignment, reopening, and reassignment of cases; collecting and distributing fines, fees, service charges, and court costs; payment of jurors and witnesses; data collection and reporting; determining indigent status; pro se assistance; keeping progress dockets; and other matters.
Other parts of the bill direct that some filing fees and other charges collected by clerks, in F.S. §§24.281 and 34.041, and which now go either to the clerks or to the state’s general revenue fund, now be deposited in the new State Courts Revenue Trust Fund. That fund was created by the Legislature during January’s special session.
Much of the contention over the clerks’ duties focuses on whether there is sufficient oversight of clerks and whether they are carrying out their duties as efficiently as possible.
Baggett argued clerks are performing well. For example, he noted recent legislation created a clerks’ corporation, composed of eight clerks, which oversees all the clerks’ budgets. In addition, each clerk must get an annual audit and also submit balance sheets to the Department of Financial Services, which conducts another audit.
“The procedure is that every nickel that comes in is audited twice in each year,” Baggett said. “There’s absolute accountability.”
Bogdanoff sees it differently. The clerks’ corporation, she said, amounts to the clerks overseeing clerks, which isn’t real accountability. As for the audits, those only ensure that the money is spent legally, but not necessarily wisely, she said.
She noted that Broward County Clerk of Court Howard Forman has twice in the past three years given bonuses to employees, last year totaling nearly $800,000, while other government agencies, including the courts, state attorneys, and public defenders, have had layoffs, salary freezes, and furloughs. At least two other clerks gave out bonuses during the same period, Bogdanoff said.
“I’m not saying they’re doing anything wrong. Is Howard Forman allowed to give out $800,000 in bonuses? Absolutely. But the question is whether it’s appropriate. The Legislature should be the ones allocating those funds,” she said. “Because there is no transparency and no accountability to any other entity, what you have is abuse. We have a moral obligation to look at every efficiency we can.”
Bogdanoff said the examination of one clerk’s operations suggested a potential savings of $10 million. Extrapolating that statewide could mean a potential savings of $200 million, she added.
Baggett doesn’t think Bogdanoff’s projections are realistic.
“We don’t intend to trade anecdotes,” he said. “We intend to trade in facts to show the efficiency of clerks, the accountability of clerks, and the appropriateness of their duties.”
One misleading factor, he said, is that courts and related agencies have pointed to their cuts in state funds to show their financial hardship, but have neglected to include funds they receive from county governments. When those are added in, Baggett said, the courts have actually done better than the clerks in recent years, and in some cases counties are paying for additional court administrative personnel that aren’t reflected in the state budgeting.
He also said that what the clerks charge and the total amount of their budgets are set by state law, and that all but a handful of clerks expect budget reductions in their court operations of between 14 and 20 percent this year. Plus, Baggett said, the bill is silent about some clerk duties, such as support for probation and guardianship operations, and vague about other duties that might be transferred to the courts.
Individual clerks have been sending out letters and information to supporters, criticizing HB 1121 and SB 2108 and calling it a power grab without a rational basis.
Bogdanoff said she’s ready for a tough battle on the measure, but said it’s necessary.
For now, the courts are calling for an examination of the clerks’ role and supporting improved funding for the court system.
A statement put out on behalf of the Supreme Court and the Office of the State Courts Administrator said:
“Florida’s courts have called for a re-evaluation of all court-related revenue so that the Legislature can determine what portion of filing fee revenue should be dedicated to supporting courts. This goal is included in the seven principles of court funding articulated earlier this year by the leaders of Florida’s judiciary.
“HB1121 and SB 2108 both initiate that re-evaluation by directing filing fee revenue to trust funds for the courts. We are grateful for the sponsors’ interest in stabilizing funding for the courts. This is a priority strongly supported by Chief Justice Peggy Quince and the Supreme Court as well as the 25 chief judges of Florida’s judicial circuits and district courts of appeal.
“Florida’s judicial branch of government will work with Florida’s legislative branch of government to find efficiencies in the work carried out each day in the courts — including those efficiencies identified in these two bills. In these difficult economic times, all branches must double their efforts to do the business of government as efficiently as we can so as to limit the financial burden on Florida’s citizens. Our elected county clerks are charged with many constitutional responsibilities for local government, and we look forward to a healthy discussion with them on how their court activities could be streamlined and carried out by the courts.”