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Belt-tightening court clerks get state windfall

Thursday, August 16th, 2012 by John Kennedy

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.

Courts want to keep more fees to avoid cash crunch

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011 by John Kennedy

Staggered by two major budget shortfalls in the past year, the state court system needs a more reliable cash source than the rollercoastering foreclosure fees lawmakers have steered its way, officials told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Polk County Circuit Court Judge John Laurent, who helped lead a workgroup of  judges and court clerks, urged the Senate Budget Committee to allow courts to keep more of the fees and service charges they already collect, but which are skimmed off for use in other state budget areas.

Judges and clerks also recommended that certain basic costs — salaries for judges, interpreters and court reporters — should come from state dollars, rather than from fees, the workgroup said in its report to lawmakers.

Close to $300 million in revenue raised by the courts are plowed into general revenue and other areas of government, officials said. If courts had been authorized to keep a larger portion of that money, they would have avoided shortfalls that are projected to demand $153 million in emergency loans in just over a year.

Court clerks needed a $44.2 million bailout last year and are seeking another $36 million to get through March 2012.

Earlier this year, the shortfall forced chief judges in Palm Beach County and other counties to consider employee layoffs, furloughs and other emergency measures. 

“This is not a question of us overspending our budget,” said Laurent, a former state senator. “The moneys have not been appropriated to our trust fund to support our budget.”

Central to the court’s woes: foreclosure fees.

 The trust fund that powers the $1 billion court and clerk system draws the bulk of its financing through these feees. But the court system’s cash flow was disrupted late last year by a nationwide freeze on foreclosures by most major lenders.

“It’s not a good, stable situation,” conceded Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also questioned the Legislature’s approach in making the court system so reliant on fees.

Without providing specifics, Negron said some fees charged Floridians for court activities are too high — warning that it could lead to legal decisions that amounted to ”cash-register justice.”

“The court system has become too dependent on churning out revenue,” Negron said, adding that more state dollars should be directed to courts. ”This thing has gotten out of whack.”

The workgroup’s full report is here:    http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/

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