Clerks set up website to help push budget reform
Facing budget problems years in the making and that have been aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis, Florida’s clerks of courts have launched a website to better inform lawyers, lawmakers, the public, and others about the funding difficulties and soon-to-be-proposed solutions.
The new “@YourService” site offers information videos, links to various resources, and hard data about the fiscal crisis clerks have been facing.
“The @YourService webpage was developed to inform legislators, stakeholders, and members of the public about our budget issues, not only during COVID-19, but well before this last year,” said Clay County Clerk of Court Tara S. Green, president of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers. “For almost a decade, clerks have confronted an unstable funding system that has affected our ability to ensure our services are available to help the public and support the court system.”
Jason Harrell, legislative and public affairs director for the FCCC, said the site will help educate lawyers, the public, and other justice system stakeholders as the FCCC pursues legislative remedies, which he said ultimately will probably take several years.
The FCCC will be pursuing two legislative initiatives this year. One, Harrell said, is a “glitch” bill addressing relatively minor issues to improve efficiency.
The second is a “service stabilization” bill that is mostly drafted but has not yet been filed.
“What this really is, is a budget policy bill. It’s not a direct ask for new, recurring revenues. This is policy changes that will help us help ourselves,” Harrell said.
Currently, clerks function almost like a cash business, he said: What they take in one month funds the following month’s operations. If something happens like a hurricane or a pandemic that cuts court filings or there’s a falling off in traffic tickets, the clerks are saddled with an immediate financial pinch that is heightened because they are not allowed to keep reserves.
The legislation will allow for reserves, for carrying over surplus funds from one year to the next, and set up a way to request help from the Legislature when there are deficits.
“Right now, we have no place to go to request that funding,” Harrell said. “It’s really simple, common sense things that we hope will have no fiscal impact to the state but will help the clerks get on their feet over the next several years as we put these policies in place.”
Other solutions, such as addressing the clerks’ heavy reliance on fees from traffic court — which have been unreliable and declining — to fund their operations will come in future years.
“This is a long-term, historic problem,” said Flagler County Clerk of Court Tom Bexley, chair of the FCCC Legislative Committee. “It doesn’t have an easy fix and we recognize the ongoing funding challenges due to COVID-19 and we’re trying to be cognizant of that.
“We’re starting the process on what we know will be a multi-year process.”
Clerks have had many funding challenges in recent years, and Green noted that, “Under the current system, the statewide budgets for clerks are now lower than the budget from 15 years ago.”
The 2008 recession caused a dramatic, multi-year drop in traffic tickets, and they declined again starting in 2013, only beginning to uptick again in the past couple years.
The pandemic, though, cut both court filings and traffic tickets, putting a double whammy on clerk revenues.
Explaining that history, the ongoing challenges, and the upcoming solutions is the purpose of the @YourService.
“We here at the FCCC wanted to put together a robust campaign to help us communicate to the public, our partners, and stakeholders what the problem is and what some of the solutions are,” Harrell said. “We developed the website as well as some of the corresponding materials to help us bring it forward.”
The site has videos that explain what clerks do and how the revenue problems developed. It has a chart that shows how state revenues for clerks went from $472 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year to $404 million in 2019-20. They are expected to rise to $422 million this year.
There are also links to pamphlets that can be printed out and summaries of what the FCCC hopes to accomplish with its legislation this year.
The FCCC has been working with legislative leaders, Harrell said, adding, “I think they very much understand and recognize that we have a problem.”