By Kim MacQueen
A recent report by Florida TaxWatch on court-related funding suggests switching from a revenue-based, corporate funding model for the clerks of court to legislative oversight and zero-based budgeting — much like two bills being discussed now in the Legislature designed to do just that.
Since its creation in 2004, the Clerk of Courts Operations Corporation has operated independent from the Legislature for budget purposes. The TaxWatch report recommends that the Legislature bring the clerks’ court-related funding into the appropriations process, which will “absolutely improve cost-efficiency and effectiveness as well as accountability and transparency,” says Robert Weissert, special counsel for Florida TaxWatch and the report’s chief author.
That is key, as the report also finds that decentralization in state clerks of court offices contributes to “wide variations in cost efficiency, effectiveness of collecting court-related revenue, and accountability for budgeted expenditures.”
TaxWatch researchers, building on a recent report by the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), found that the methods for collections of court fees and fines varied widely across individual clerks, and that fees and fines collected ranged from a high of 90 percent in one county to a low of 36 percent in another.
The 40-page report also laments the lack of incentives or requirements for individual clerks to improve cost efficiency under current guidelines, and suggests improvements that, if implemented over the next two years, could result in between $34 million and $140 million in cost savings.
“Florida TaxWatch has conducted an independent study that reviews the transparency and efficiency of a system that must be accountable to Florida’s taxpayers,” said Dominic M. Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch. “During these difficult economic times, we must ensure that every tax dollar is spent wisely, appropriately, and to the greatest benefit of all in order to serve our citizens well.”
TaxWatch researchers also charged the state with not appropriately allocating resources to either the clerks or the courts. And, like legislators concurrently studying the same issue in committees, they found discussions of transferring any actual court-related functions from clerks to the courts to be premature.
“A comprehensive study of the potential costs and benefits of consolidation of the clerks’ court-related functions within the state courts system is needed before such consolidation should be undertaken,” the report reads.