By Kim MacQueen
Pointed questions flew at the House Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee March 12:
* Are the courts trying to grab power from the clerks?
* How can the clerks justify paying bonuses when the courts are laying off employees?
* And what about 41 of 67 clerks using the same collections agency owned by the wife of the president of the clerks’ association?
State court officials and representatives of the court clerks were grilled by committee members in the information-only meeting designed to allow both sides to present their case in an ongoing funding debate.
The committee 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 courts. Those bills also call for transferring some of the clerks’ court support functions to the courts. But committee members quizzed both sides in a thorough review of their procedures and spending during tight budget times.
The clerks found themselves in the hot seat first.
After a presentation on the clerks’ funding corporation budget model by Sarasota Clerk of the Court Karen Rushing, committee Chair Sandra Adams, R- Oviedo, zeroed in on reports of clerks distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in bonuses last year, just as budget cuts forced the courts to cut hundreds of employees.
“We have been reducing our budgets statewide, courts included, over the last few sessions, based on revenues that have been collected,” Adams began. “Can you tell me how many of your clerks -- I know of at least four, and think there’s more -- that gave out bonuses last year, one being as high as $800,000, another as high as $300,000?”
While she didn’t know which clerks had given out bonuses, Rushing said sometimes those payments go to reward employees without raising their base pay.
“That’s something that we need to just remember, a bonus is one mechanism, financially, to keep a payroll from inflating into the next year,” Rushing said.
The issue of bonuses came up again a few minutes later, when Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, asked John Dew, executive director of the Clerks of Court Operating Corporation, “Whether it’s Washington or Detroit or down here in Florida, our constituents are outraged at excessive pay. What can we do to assure that some of the abuses that happened in this state can be prevented in the future?”
Dew responded that, while he didn’t know about the bonuses beforehand, “You have to look to see how much their caseload was, to see if it was large enough that there was a lot more revenue expected, which also meant that there was a lot more work expected, to determine if that was something that needed to be done to make sure that the work was also done.”
Dew admitted that “in a politically tight time like this, it doesn’t look good.”
Adams also focused on the clerks’ use of outside collections agencies to collect court-imposed fines.
“I notice that 41 out of 67 clerks use same collections company…. and I believe the woman who owns it is the wife of Dewitt Cason, the president of your association, is that correct?” Adams asked.
“That is correct,” Dew answered, pointing out that clerks often will use two or three collections agents to inspire competition among them.
Adams responded that she had a list of clerks' offices, and apart from Miami-Dade County, none of the clerks used more than one collections agent.
Nearly two-thirds of the clerks, including Columbia County Clerk of Court DeWitt Cason, have contracts with S.E. Services and Associates, Inc., which is owned by Cason’s wife Sherri, according to Adams.
“It does seem alarming. That’s 61 percent,” Adams said. “That’s a high number. I would like you to find out how that is awarded.”
State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner and Trial Court Budget Commission Chair Chief Judge Belvin Perry of the Ninth Circuit both addressed the committee on the courts’ budget priorities. Representatives asked Goodner to elaborate on the main budgetary difference between the clerks and the courts, namely that heavy caseloads mean more revenue for clerks and less for the courts.
“The clerk’s budget is workload-based,” Goodner said. “When the workload goes up, there is additional revenue as a result of that increased work. An individual clerk is able to add resources to address workload within the statutory revenue caps.”
Conversely, she said, the budget model for the judicial branch is needs-based. The legislature determines budget priorities for the courts, state attorneys, and public defenders and the level of resources provided to address increased workload, if any at all.
“In an example of how this works, Miami-Dade filings in circuit and county went up by 21 percent from 06-07 to 07-08,” Goodner said. “As the model works, the clerk’s budget was able to increase by 14 percent. During that same period of time – same workload, same filings – the courts’ budget actually was decreased by 6 percent.”
The issue of legislative oversight also came up repeatedly, and both sides were asked to speak to it.
“The courts, certainly, in my estimation are underfunded,” said Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Ft.Myers. “I think we need to do everything we can to make sure we have a functioning justice system -- that would include the clerks as well.”
Thompson said his concern is that the money collected by the clerks goes into the clerks' corporation, which evaluates its own budgets. Whereas the court budget, he said, is apportioned and evaluated by the Legislature.
“Is there some mechanism where the clerks would be amenable to having those budgets reviewed, evaluated, and analyzed at the legislative level as opposed to the corporation level?” Thompson asked.
Rushing responded: “The budgets do go through the process adopted by the Legislature... Secondly, if there is going to be more oversight from the legislative perspective, we want to be at the table discussing that with the Legislature, because we don’t want this criticism.”
Goodner was asked a similar question by Rep. William Snyder, R-Stuart.
“If the goal is to oversee the clerks’ operations so that they are not overspending, would it be fair to say that some government branch could overlook that?”
“The question the courts have tried to pose is, is the Legislature comfortable with the allocation of those dollars, and level of scrutiny of how those dollars are being spent, to know that the pie is being portioned out in the manner that helps everyone that is generating that revenue?” Goodner said. “I think it’s absolutely the Legislature’s responsibility to oversee the spending of state funds that are allocated to clerks.”
“What do you say to those looking at this as a power grab on the part of the court system for money and troops?” Rep. Darryl Evin Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, asked Goodner.
“I don’t believe that anything the court system has put forth could be considered a power grab,” Goodner responded. “We’ve asked for a fair and equitable allocation of resources that are coming in from court-related revenues.”