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Clerks face short and long-term funding problems

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There’s a certain irony that over the summer, 15 county commissions in Florida, from some of the smallest counties to the largest, came up with county funds to help their clerks of court pay for court-support operations. Except for office space, that was supposed to have ended in 2004, with the implementation of a constitutional amendment.

There’s less irony in another fact. Clerks in their 2019-20 fiscal year had less revenue to pay for their court support operations than they had in 2005.

The budget crisis is because COVID-19 has exacerbated an ongoing problem of over reliance on revenues from traffic court to pay for other court operations, clerks say, and has caused Florida’s 67 clerks to shorten hours, furlough employees, and not fill open jobs.

“It varied [county to county], but I think at the end of the day, everyone took a hit somewhere in the clerks’ world,” said Clay County Clerk of Court Tara Green, president of the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers.

“This budget year, we’re operating on a budget lower than we had in 2005,” she added. “I don’t know how many government offices can operate effectively under that.”

“Locally, we’re experiencing the same problem as everybody else,” said Flagler County Clerk of Court Tom Bexley, who chairs the FCCC’s legislative committee. “Our court operations are designed to run off the fines, fees, and costs from court operations. When the courts are shut down for six weeks and slowly coming back, you can imagine the hole we’re all finding ourselves in.”

Jason Welty, budget and communications director for the Clerks of Court Operations Corporation, which handles the clerks’ joint budget matters, rattled off some of the impacts.

“Fifty-seven percent of clerk employees [statewide] have had to take some sort of pay cut [usually through a furlough or a reduction in working hours] in order for clerks to make it through,” he said.

Welty said in addition to the furloughs/pay reductions, clerks have left about 8% of their positions open, 2% of permanent staff were laid off, and around 74% temporary staff were laid off.

Palm Beach County Clerk of Court Sharon Bock was looking at furloughing around 275 of her 475 court support personnel until the county stepped in with a special appropriation. Welty and Green noted in DeSoto County every full-time clerk employee was cut back to part time.

Green said there are two causes. The immediate one was COVID-19, which cut court filings, traffic tickets, and other revenue sources that clerks rely on to pay for their services. (Clerks get about half of the fines, fees, and costs they collect from court operations. The rest is split among 42 other state trust funds.)

As part of a general reduction in expenditures, clerks were ordered to make a 13% reduction to their 2019-20 budget.

The problem for the clerks is their fiscal year runs from October 1 through September 30.

That meant the 13% reduction ordered in June for the entire 2019-20 fiscal year fell almost entirely in the fourth quarter — July, August, and September. Clerks had to cut spending by around 52% for the quarter.

The second problem is a more long-term, systemic issue and goes back to 1998, when voters passed an amendment proposed by that year’s Constitution Revision Commission requiring the state to take over most funding for clerk and trial court operations. The amendment was effective July 1, 2004.

Civil filing fees were available to pay for civil court operations, but criminal, juvenile, dependency, Baker Act, Marchman Act, domestic violence, and other cases generate little or no revenues from fines or costs to help clerks. The Legislature’s solution, according to Green and long-time FCCC General Counsel Fred Baggett, was to use money generated in traffic court to pay for those operations.

Although the Legislature has made some changes in how clerk budgets are approved and the money funneled, that basic model remains in place.

“From 2004 until about 2008, that worked fine because the traffic fines covered the nonpaying parts of the clerk offices,” Baggett said. “Along comes the recession, traffic fines start plummeting. There is nothing then to cover the costs that are incurred by the clerks for the criminal side and for those other non-income producing functions of the office.”

The clerks had a $39 million budget cut the first year of the recession and as traffic revenues continued to fall, the Legislature year after year began appropriating extra money to make up shortfalls. Baggett said in one five year-period the number of traffic tickets fell by 50% and during a four-year stretch, the Legislature came up with an additional $150 million to help clerks make up annual shortfalls.

Welty said the number of traffic tickets declined every year from 2013-14 until the 2017-18 fiscal year. There were slight increases in 2018-19 and again in 2019-20 until the pandemic hit.

Then the number of traffic tickets went from 50,000 a week in March to 30,000 a week by June.

An additional problem, Green said, is a policy that clerks are not allowed to keep significant reserves from the revenues they get — money is spent soon after it comes in.

Green and Welty noted when Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, court activity dropped in affected areas and clerks lost about 20% of their funding and had no reserves to offset that. And the pandemic is much worse.

“We live month to month, we’re like a household or small business where our revenues from the month of September pay for the month of October,” Welty said. “We can’t have these huge fluctuations without some kind of reserve to help us through the downtime.”

Some of the immediate budget crunch has eased, Green said. While funds are still reduced for the new fiscal year, clerks can spread the reduction over the entire year, she said, instead of one quarter.

But clerks still face challenges, especially with jury trials restarting. Even if trials run for a time at a slower pace, Green said keeping up with COVID-19 requirements is more labor intensive because clerks have to more closely screen, monitor, and escort potential jurors around the courthouse.

Nor will the resumption of “normal,” post-pandemic life mean clerks (and the courts) will eventually make up all the current revenue shortages.

Green and Welty said some of the revenue will be delayed, like filing fees for evictions, foreclosures, and civil suits that have been postponed but which will eventually pass through the court system. But other revenues, such as fines from traffic tickets that never got written, will be lost.

And that’s significant, Green said, because the clerks will need more resources as the courts deal with case backlogs from the COVID-19 restrictions. She noted court officials are considering asking for sizeable temporary help to address the backlog, but without more resources, clerks won’t be able to keep up with processing those cases.

Clerk officials said there’s no real blame for the funding problems, but rather it’s that the initial 2004 solution of using traffic court revenues for a significant part of clerks’ budgets no longer works.

“Our ongoing goal and mission is to change our funding model so it’s not reliant on revenues that are derived from such things as traffic tickets, that we’ve historically seen drop over the years,” said Bexley, the FCCC legislative chair.

He added with the likelihood of self-driving and smarter cars in the next few years, it’s unlikely that traffic ticket revenues will recover.

Green said the FCCC doesn’t have detailed proposals yet, but is in discussion with legislative leaders and the Governor’s Office, both of whom have been receptive.

“We’re looking at policy type changes and trying to work with the Legislature this year on changes that unravel this model and makes it more sustainable,” Green said.

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