The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

Clerks struggle with $22-million shortfall

Senior Editor Regular News

Clerks struggle with $22-million shortfall

‘The whole system that we as lawyers have come to expect is going to come to a grinding slow motion’

Senior Editor

We are well aware that these drastic measures will cause disruption to our court operations, including substantial delays in docketing times and issuance of defaults and summonses. ” ­— Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock, in a memo to Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath.

We have no options but to change the way we do business and deliver services.. . . We would anticipate that there will be delays in the delivery of services, reductions in the hours we are open, and, to some extent, the quality of work we do. ” — Leon County Clerk Bob Inzer, in a memo to Chief Judge Jonathan Sjostrom and other court managers.

From one end of Florida to the other, customer service at 67 county clerks’ offices will suffer because of a budget deficit of $22.4 million for the current fiscal year ending September 30.

Bob Inzer Clerk employees are being laid off. Hiring is frozen. Those staffers lucky enough to keep their jobs will work harder with no raises. Phones will ring longer. People at the counter will wait longer for help. Lawyers will notice that the time between filing a lawsuit and seeing it appear on the online docket will go from days to weeks. Required redaction of confidential information in court files will take a lot longer. Online remote viewing of court records will be delayed. Some branch courthouses will close a day every other week.

“You hate to say the sky is falling, but in this case a big piece of the sky has fallen,” said Fred Baggett, a Greenberg Traurig partner who serves as legislative counsel for the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers.

“We are trying to mitigate the damage and trying to create a sustainable funding system, because the model there now, even with extraordinary measures. . . is not sustainable and will require restructuring of the funding.”

Fluctuations in collections of fees and fines, at the same time crime rates are up, created a perfect storm for the clerks’ budget crisis. As Baggett and Leon County Clerk Bob Inzer explained:

The expected second wave of foreclosure filings never arrived. Toll-road violators once were issued citations that went to the clerks’ offices, but now third-party collection agencies do that job. More citizens claim they are indigent to avoid paying filing fees in family law cases. Fewer traffic citations, the cash cow for clerks, were written by law enforcement officers.

“There was, shall we say, a larger level of grace given to people,” Baggett said, of traffic citations down 9 percent statewide.

Traffic citations in Leon County are down even more.

“In Leon County, we saw the drop-off after the West case,” Inzer said, referring to a dash-cam video showing officers used excessive force in the August 2013 DUI arrest of a Tallahassee woman. “The Tallahassee Police Department was viewed by many as not looking good in that situation. The police chief told me, ‘No one likes getting a traffic citation.’”

At the same time, the more labor-intensive, less money-making operations of the clerks — such as dealing with felony cases and trying to collect court costs from guilty defendants serving time in prison — have increased.

It all added up to less revenue collected to stretch through the fourth fiscal quarter. The clerks, through there statewide governing agency, voted to impose a 5-percent across-the-board cut that feels like a 20-percent cut, because it’s squeezed into a single fiscal quarter.

“It’s too soon to say, for the courts collectively, how this budget cut will manifest itself,” said 15th Circuit Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath, who chairs the Florida Conference of Circuit Court Judges, noting it will play out differently for county court clerks around the state. “We’re all nervously watching with anticipation, working closely with our clerks to work out the best scenario, given the challenge forced upon the clerks and courts.”

There will be more losers than the unfortunate employees who lose their jobs.

“When the clerks can’t provide services and staffing to run an efficient court system, it slows down the whole process,” Colbath said. “Ultimately, it’s the people who rely upon the courts who are the losers.

“Mom is trying to get a deadbeat dad to pay the bills. The lines are going to get longer somewhere,” Colbath said.

What Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock worries about, Colbath said, is how to prioritize cases, such as domestic violence injunctions that must be done quickly, and then figure out where to “absorb the loss.”

“You file a pleading. We like to see that in the court file in 24 to 48 hours. Before the clerk can put the document in electronic files, instead of one or two days, it might be five days,” Colbath said.

“How is that important? Someone files an eviction to the guy who rents his house. He can’t pay the mortgage on his investment property. It doesn’t get in the court file as quickly, so the judge looks to see if the defendant has filed an answer.

“Before I can ask that question, a longer period of time has lapsed before I can get a complete file. The landlord is saying, ‘Five days have passed. I want a default judgment.’ The judge is looking at the file, and the judge doesn’t have confidence to see if the piece of paper expected from the defendant doesn’t make it into the file.”

While clerks statewide take in more than $1 billion, the clerks’ total allocation back from the state for this year’s budget was $444 million, according to Bock, chair of the Florida Clerks of Courts Operations Corp.

Inzer pointed out clerks are precluded from having reserves and rainy-day funds.

In the past several years, when deficits loomed, the Legislature agreed to “backfill” what it gave back to the clerks, Baggett said, noting that from 2009-14, the Legislature backfilled $150 million over that five-year period. But not this year.

“The courts experienced the same thing. The courts got $15 million on the back of its bill to fill their gap,” Baggett said. “The clerks were hoping for that to be done for them.”

The clerks were left in a lurch.

“I really don’t know how to speculate as to why the Legislature did not fund the deficit this year,” Baggett said. “I know there were other priorities that were demanding out of the criminal justice allocation that were unexpected. There had to be a significant focus on the Department of Corrections and a number of issues related there.

“In our discussion with leadership in both the House and Senate, there is recognition that the funding of the whole court system — all the judicial partners, including the clerks, the state attorneys, the public defenders — needs serious review.”

Policymakers debate how to revamp the funding mechanism.

“Fees and fines and filings ebb and flow,” said Colbath. “The cost to operate the courts, and I suspect the clerks’ offices, is fairly consistent and predictable. The money sources to fund them are not — and therein lies the challenge.”

Sarasota County Clerk of Court Karen Rushing, who chairs the legislative committee of the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, said: “We asked the Legislature to address the deficit. In a way, it’s not a deficit. We asked them to address the shortfall in revenues to address the shortfall in the budgets to operate the offices.. . .

“We were marching along thinking we could spend the budget and hoping the Legislature would address it.”

When the Legislature did not address it, Rushing said, “We had to drop expenses by 20 percent, which means payroll, basically.”

In Palm Beach County, that means Bock has already laid off 41 full-time and 16 part-time workers. In Leon County, Inzer gathered his clerks together and told them he is doing everything he can to avoid layoffs, so fewer clerks must do more work for less pay.

“We are getting to the point where we are beyond cutting the fat and down to the muscle and bone,” Inzer said. “Many of my employees have gone years and years without raises. Yet, the county is giving its employees raises. They hear about that and ask, ‘When are we getting a raise?’ I said, ‘No, my objective is for you to keep your job.’”

Similar tough decisions are being played out by 67 county clerks who have to decide how to fit a 5 percent budget cut in the final fiscal quarter that feels like 20 percent.

“You can imagine the disruption the clerks are dealing with to take a 20 percent cut in their last quarter,” Baggett said. “The bad part is even if the Legislature came in and said we will fund it, clerks have already had to lay off people. They are already without jobs.”

Lawyers will feel the pinch, too.

“The whole system that we as lawyers have come to expect is going to come to a grinding slow motion,” Baggett said. “If there is not relief as soon as possible, when the Legislature next meets, then the situation is only going to get worse.”

Inzer has already spread the word at the Leon County Courthouse that he expects the situation to worsen. The 5.1 percent hit in the fourth quarter came to $303,000, in addition to the $223,000 budget cut his office took coming into the year. In the past 11 years, his budget declined 17 percent.

“It would appear that next year the deficit will be even greater and, therefore, the budget cuts deeper,” Inzer wrote in his memo to court personnel. “Let me apologize in advance for the problems this may create and assure you this is not the way I want to operate my office, treat my employees, or serve the citizens of Leon County.”

Senior Editor Gary Blankenship contributed to this report.

News in Photos