Belt-tightening court clerks get state windfallby John Kennedy | August 16th, 2012
Florida lawmakers steered $29.5 million back to state court clerks Thursday, erasing most of a budget cut that had led to shorter hours, longer lines and even a few layoffs.
The Legislative Budget Commission approved giving clerks authority to drawn the extra cash, which stems from increased fee and fine collections.
Palm Beach County Clerk Sharon Bock, whose office absorbed a $2.5 million reduction when the budget year began July 1, had already cut two hours from the office’s daily public operating times and closed a branch office in Royal Palm Beach to save money.
A clerk’s office spokeswoman said it wasn’t immediately clear whether these reductions would be dropped with the promise of a state windfall.
Bock had avoided layoffs, after the office cut 111 positions since 2009. But state budget analysts had warned the Legislature’s $31 million reduction could have led to as many as 930 layoffs statewide.
“We all recognize that tough budget challenges still remain ahead for all of us, but today’s action by the LBC will help Florida’s Clerks and Comptrollers fulfill our duties for the coming year,” said Gulf County Clerk Becky Norris, president of the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers.”
Florida courts have been buffeted the past two years by financial instability. At the height of the state’s foreclosure crisis, court fees generated a bounty that left clerks with a $100 million reserve at the end of 2009.
But the slowing pace of foreclosures led to budget shortfalls each of the past two years, with the Legislature forced to step in to avert widespread court delays and layoffs. Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said Thursday he remains suspect that part of the problem facing some clerks is rooted in their own management.
Alexander said some clerk’s offices are thriftier than others.
“I’ve heard so many of those sort of things,” Alexander said. “But when you look at the cost per case adjudicated and all the metrics we use, there are still some real significant differences between high-cost clerks and low-cost clerks.”
Under a budget change for the 2012- 13 year, foreclosure filing fees will now go to general revenue. Seventy-five percent of the courts’ budgets will come out of the general revenue fund, with the remainder coming from court fees.