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Court clerks get a bit of the budget help they need

Senior Editor Top Stories

Scott PlakonBills that clerks hoped would provide a long-term, permanent fix to their yearly fiscal woes didn’t make much headway.

SB 1076, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 11, but was never heard in its other two assigned committees, the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice and the Appropriations Committee. The House counterpart, HB 1143, sponsored by Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, was never heard in committee.

The bills called for the clerks to be compensated for services that don’t typically generate revenue, including handling criminal cases, domestic violence and other restraining and protective orders, according to information put out by the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers. They also gave clerks authority over unspent funds at the end of a fiscal year; would allow them to seek extra funds when they are required to take on non-revenue generating tasks required by the courts or the state; and provide more flexibility in setting budgets instead of relying on projections by the Revenue Estimating Conference.

The Legislature did pass HB 337, which allows clerks to retain some of their unexpended funds and decide how those will be spent, but it’s not enough to make up for the expected shortfall, according to Savannah Sullivan, spokesperson for the FCCC. HB 337 was sponsored by Rep. Tom Leek, R-Daytona Beach, while Brandes sponsored the Senate version.

The clerks’ budget challenges stem largely from the drop off in the issuing of traffic citations, which have fallen 25 percent or more in recent years.

Traffic courts, with their resulting fees and fines, accounted for a disproportional share of the clerks’ court operations budgets, with the extra funds used to support criminal filings and other work that generates little or no revenue.

A handout prepared by the FCCC noted, “When this budget process was built, it was anticipated that those who paid to access the justice system would produce sufficient revenues to fund all services clerks provide. Today, that’s not the reality. Many services for vulnerable populations have no fees, or fees are waived. This is good public policy; however, the revenue generating cases that once funded these high-cost, high-workload services are gone — and they’re not coming back.”

FCCC figures also show that in the 2013-14 budget, clerks had a $472.3 million budget for their court-related operations. That bottomed out at $409.04 million for the 2017-18 budget and climbed slightly to $424.8 million in the current budget that ends September 31.

According to Jason Welty, budget and communications director for the Clerks of Court Operating Corporation, which coordinates the clerks budget operations, the clerks needed $461 million for their court related operations in 2017-18 and $462.1 million in 2018-19.

Under state law, the clerks’ court-related budget is set by the state’s Revenue Estimating Conference, and that hasn’t been done yet for the 2019-20 fiscal year, which starts for the clerks on October 1. Sullivan said the clerks are sure they will face another shortfall, but it will be mitigated somewhat by the ability to use funds left over from 2018-19.

In past years, clerks have coped with the continuing shortfalls by cutting staff, closing branch offices, and reducing operating hours.