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Budget includes funds for courts’ pay equity issues

Associate Editor Regular News

Budget includes funds for courts’ pay equity issues

Megan E. Davis

Associate Editor

The Florida Legislature addressed the state court system’s top priority — employee pay disparity — with an $8.1 million budget allocation.

“That’s slightly under what we requested, but we feel very good about that number,” said State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner. “We will be able to make a significant difference in bringing better equity, in terms of what we are paying versus what other branches are paying, and also that it will help us to retain our employees and improve our recruitment efforts with certain classes of employees.”

Lawmakers approved the budget May 2, the last day of the session.

The courts requested funding for the issue after a comprehensive study of employee pay across the three branches of government found that court employees’ salaries lagged behind comparable positions in other branches by an average of 12.59 percent.

As a result, the system lost key managers and other high performers in recent years who possessed a broad knowledge. The disparity also made it difficult to offer salaries commensurate with experience and award merit among staff.

“It’s not an across-the-board raise,” Goodner said. “It is going to be a targeted raise based on recruitment, retention, and equity problems.”

The chief justice is required to file a plan with the legislative budget commission detailing which positions will receive pay increases and how much they will receive.

For the Supreme Court, the budget includes $76,000 to fund a position to provide general case management support.

The courts are also set to receive funding for three additional district court of appeal judgeships, two for the Second DCA and one for the Fifth DCA.

“We’re very pleased to see additional judgeships funded in the district courts,” Goodner said. “I think it’s been since the very early ’90s that additional judges were funded in the district courts.”

The budget also allocates $7.1 million to begin construction of a new courthouse for the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

A study of the Fourth DCA’s 44-year-old courthouse found the cost of renovations to address a mold outbreak and bring the building into compliance with ADA standards would exceed the cost of a new building.

An additional $3 million is included to fund various maintenance projects for the Second, Third, and Fifth DCAs, such as heating and air-conditioning renovations and security system upgrades.

“The building and maintenance issues for the district courts were another very high priority for us, and we’re very pleased to see that all of their significant issues have been addressed,” Goodner said.

The system also received funding to continue eight post-adjudicatory drug courts.

“There was an OPPAGA (Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability) study done that demonstrated that those programs were very cost effective for the state and so the Legislature has continued the funding,” Goodner said.

The budget also includes $100,000 for problem-solving courts education and training.

“It’s one-time funding to have our judges and court staff participate in a training event aimed toward these court dockets that deal with special problems, like mental health issues and substance abuse,” Goodner said.

The Legislature eliminated a requirement that the court pay for conflict counsel attorneys’ fees over the statutory cap.

Additionally, the following increases in conflict counsel fees were approved.

* Capital first-degree murder (lead counsel), raised to $25,000 from $15,000

* Capital first-degree murder (co-counsel), $25,000 from $15,000

* Capital first-degree murder (nondeath), $9,000 from $2,500

* Capital sexual battery, $4,000 from $2000

* Capital appeals, $9,000 from $2,000

* Life felony, $5,000 from $2,500

The Legislature also set the following fees for the first time:

* Life felony (RICO), $9,000

* First-degree felony punishable by life (RICO), $6,000

* First-degree felony (RICO), $5,000

The budget includes $2 million for civil legal assistance. Though legislators have allocated funding for civil legal assistance for the past three years, Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed that line item.

A total of $9.6 million is included for restoration and replacement of small county courthouses in Washington, Jefferson, and Calhoun counties.

“We are very pleased with the funding that the Legislature provided and the fact that they addressed a number of our most critical issues and highest priorities,” Goodner said.

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