By Gary Blankenship
Florida’s county clerks of courts will no longer be under direct legislative budget oversight, if Gov. Rick Scott signs a bill approved by the Legislature.
SB 1512, passed in a package of appropriations-related legislation, ends the practice begun in 2009 of having the clerks’ court-related budgets reviewed as part of the broader budget for the state court system.
Sarasota Clerk of Court Karen Rushing, president of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, said the bill corrects several administrative and financial headaches for clerks.
“We’re eager to get rid of some of the inefficiencies that were caused by the change [in 2009],” she said.
Prior to 2009, the clerks kept the first $80 from civil filing fees to pay their expenses. But with the changes in 2009, the Legislature took that away and also imposed an 8 percent service charge on other fees that were collected by the clerks, sent the revenue to the state, and then returned it to the clerks to pay their expenses.
The result, Rushing noted, was chronic financial shortfalls for clerks statewide and the state continually providing emergency funding as revenues for the clerks fell short of the amount they were authorized to spend. That shortfall totaled more than $160 million since 2009.
“That $80 [filing fee] plus the 8 percent [service charge] basically constituted the deficit,” Rushing said.
The new law returns the $80 filing fee to the clerks and eliminates the 8 percent service charge, she said, adding the bill has provisions for remitting to the state excess funds clerks collect above what they need for their operations.
Before 2009, the state-chartered Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation (CCOC) reviewed the clerks’ court-related budgets. Its governing board is largely made up of county clerks. Under the new law, the Legislative Budget Commission will oversee the clerks’ budgets. The LBC is made up of lawmakers and is empowered to act for the Legislature on some budget matters between sessions.
The new law also got rid of what Rushing said was a clumsy “unit cost” way of trying to evaluate the efficiency of clerks and determine their budgets. It was prone, she said, to volatility in the number of filings and was ineffective in measuring the work actually required. It will be replaced by a “work performance” standard.
Rushing said she expects more refinement in this area.
“Every court order, administrative order [on filing] that’s different, drives or adds a complexity to the measurement of activity that’s going on. You add a nuance that says we do it differently here,” she said. “That’s not to say different isn’t okay, but as time goes on we have to measure how much difference do we need. Does it really aid enough if it’s driving costs to be different?”
Another improvement for the clerks, Rushing said, is a unification of their fiscal years. Clerks support both their local courts and local county operations. Counties operate on an October 1-September 30 fiscal year, while since 2009 clerks have been operating on a July 1-June 30 state fiscal year for their court operations. Clerks will now operate on the county fiscal year, she said, submitting their budgets to the CCOC by June 1 and in turn the CCOC is required to submit the budgets to the LBC by August 1.
The change in funding oversight for the clerks was opposed by the Bar and the judiciary. At a legislative committee hearing on the bill, 20th Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck, chair of the Supreme Court’s Trial Court Budget Commission, said judges would prefer that all court-related funding stay under direct legislative oversight.
Steve Metz, the Bar’s chief legislative counsel, agreed, telling that committee, “Courts and clerks are interrelated . . . and need the same budget process so everyone is looking at what the needs are; we’re looking at them at the same time, and they’re in sync.”
Legislators, though, heeded the clerks. Both chambers passed their initial legislation out of their respective appropriations committee unanimously and also unanimously approved the final bill.
Parts of the legislation are effective immediately when signed by the governor; the rest becomes effective July 1.