Florida clerks outline funding challenges to Senate committee
'Employee costs make up over 90% of our budgets. These staffing issues directly impact our services. They affect daily processing and access to case data, and create threats to our accuracy, timing, and increase the risk of errors'
“Closing the gap to fund the future,” was the message Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers Legislative Chair and Polk County Clerk Stacy Butterfield presented to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Civil and Criminal Justice February 16.
Butterfield gave an overview of the nearly 1,000 statutory responsibilities the clerks provide and said the main funding for the clerks was not found in the General Appropriations Act but rather in fines, fees, and court costs.
“Since we’re not in the state budget process, many ask where does our funding come from and how does it work?” Butterfield said.
The presentation outlined how over the past 10 years many related agencies received substantial increases in their budgets. From FY 2012-13 to FY 2021-22, the trial court budget increased by 30.9%, the state attorneys’ budget by 34.3%, and the public defenders’ budget grew by 39%. During that same period, the clerks of court only received a 1.3% increase.
Butterfield said while incremental improvements established by the Legislature have built a foundation to address funding issues, the “insufficient funding” has impacted the services the clerks provide.
“Without essential funding, we can’t keep up with state, local, and national wage growth,” Butterfield said. “Employee costs make up over 90% of our budgets. These staffing issues directly impact our services. They affect daily processing and access to case data, and create threats to our accuracy, timing, and increase the risk of errors.”
Butterfield said in her office, 43% of the workforce have less than five years of service in the clerks’ office and that over the years the clerks have had to cut positions.
Butterfield said the funding model for the clerks has significant challenges and despite recent incremental improvements, the clerks’ budget for FY 2022-23 stood at $474 million, only $2 million higher than it was 10 years ago.
“During this time, personnel and technology costs have continued to skyrocket,” she said. “The only way clerks’ offices have survived is by reducing access to services.”
Butterfield noted the demand for records has greatly increased, particularly from law enforcement.
“Entering criminal data promptly and accurately is a critical component of public safety,” Butterfield said. “Reducing staff can lead to delays in access to justice. We can’t offer competitive wages and can’t retain staff.”
Butterfield said clerks retain only about half of what they collect. During FY 2021-22, the clerks took in $803.5 million in total revenue but only kept 54% or $435.9 million dollars. Just over $100 million (13%) was distributed to over 40+ state trust funds, she said.
Clerk budgets still largely depend on unstable revenues from traffic citations, Butterfield said, and many of the critical services the clerks provide are not supported by filing fees.
“Traffic citations make up 26% of our budgets. Traffic citations are down 53% from their peak in 2007. Many cases understandably have no filing fee. These cases include mental-health cases, substance-abuse cases, and protections for injunctions, all of which have high workloads and no revenue source,” Butterfield said.
The current FY 2022-23 budget, which only includes recurring revenue, stands at $464.9 million, while the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation has identified a needs-based budget of $501.4 million. This brings the funding gap for the current fiscal year to $36.5 million, she said.
“This session we will work with the Legislature to propose solutions to close the gap and fund the future,” Butterfield said. “To do this we need to diversify clerk revenue, support necessary staffing, and account for critical services without a funding source and we hope to work toward that end.”
Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, said the clerks are basically acting “as an escrow and dispersing agent,” and asked Butterfield about the successful collection rate of the main court costs that are driving revenue.
“We have various collection rate measures by [specific] court, so depending on the court type the collection rate would vary,” Butterfield said. “I think there is a 9% collection rate standard. We report those on a quarterly basis.”
“We force you guys to basically have a revenue model that is completely dependent; in the criminal aspect, on the defendants funding your operation,” Pizzo said. “That’s your revenue model, how well you collect from some of the toughest demographics to collect from.”
Butterfield said those unstable revenue sources are dependent on the court-related fines, fees, and court costs imposed.
“We certainly would like the tools to be able to provide our services simply because those services are crucial to the system operating effectively,” Butterfield said.
Sen. Tom Wright, R-Port Orange, asked if there was anything the Legislature could do to help collect more of the money that has already been ordered by the court that is not being collected.
“The clerks have actively worked on court-ordered payment plans and we are wanting to assist the participants in the court system with the ability to comply with their court-ordered obligations,” Butterfield said. “To do so — and I’m going to be frank — our staff is stretched thin and we’re constantly plugging holes because we do not have the resources to be able to do all the pieces we need to do.”
Butterfield said the clerks just want the ability to do their job and do it well.