Florida court clerks predict delays in civil, traffic filings due to budget cuts

By DARA KAM

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Updated: 1:07 p.m. Saturday, March 17, 2012

Posted: 7:19 p.m. Friday, March 16, 2012T

TALLAHASSEE — If couples are in a hurry to get a divorce, they might want to consider seeking an end to their marriage outside Florida in the coming year.

Divorces are just one of the many types of civil cases that county clerks of courts say will almost certainly be delayed in 2012-2013 because of an unexpected $31 million cut lawmakers handed to the clerks in the legislative session that ended last week.

The reduction came less than two weeks before the session ended, leaving the clerks caught unaware. Instead of the $445 million they had been promised, their statewide budget was cut to nearly $416 million, which includes $2 million to handle a backlog in foreclosure cases.

The state’s clerks held an emergency meeting in Tampa Wednesday to figure out how to handle the nearly 7 percent cut that comes after lawmakers slashed their budgets by 17 percent three years ago.

Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock said her office is facing a $2.5 million decrease for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, bringing the total she’s lost since 2009 to $10 million.

She doesn’t plan to lay off any employees because she has already cut 111 workers since the reduction in 2009 and she does not believe she could fulfill her constitutional obligation to operate the court if she cut more.

But she said she will put technology projects on hold, reduce the number of copiers in the courthouse by half and put an end to as much overtime as she can.

Those cutbacks — combined with an increase in foreclosure cases, red light camera ticket cases and other court filings — means Palm Beach County residents will be in for a trying time, she said.

“Our civil courts are going to be horribly, horribly disturbed,” she said.

Similarly, Sarasota Clerk of Circuit Courts Karen Rushing, legislative chair of the statewide clerks association, said, “Our position is that this is not adequate. It will cause serious consequences.”

Because of constitutional and statutory requirements regarding due process and speedy trials, criminal cases won’t be affected, the clerks say. Moreover, the legislature slightly increased the budget for the judges, public defenders and state attorneys in the coming budget year.

But civil and traffic cases feel an effect. The clerks — who are the gateway into the court system by receiving, processing and storing the documents for all cases, as well as traffic fines — won’t be able to create the necessary paperwork for the courts to run smoothly, Bock predicted.

“Without overtime, we will have an extensive backlog mostly in our civil division,” she said.

Documents will be time-stamped when they are delivered to the court, Rushing said. But there will be a lag before the records are put into the file, either electronically or on paper.

“It’s going to cause access to public records dysfunction because when you come to get the record it won’t be indexed so we’ll be rummaging through boxes to try to find it. That’s going to burn our time and we won’t be able to deal with the backlog,” Rushing said.

Bock said postponing the switch to electronic records probably will cause her office to run out of paper before the year is out, meaning lawyers could have to bring their own paper if they want copies of court filings.

Cutting the number of copiers also will slow work down too.

“There’s going to be a line when a clerk has to make a copy,” Bock said. “They’re going to have to spend that time waiting in line instead of waiting on customers.”

Elsewhere in the state, Rushing predicted clerks will close branch offices and shorten hours of operation to meet the budget reductions.

But Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said, “I just don’t ultimately believe the parade of horribles will occur.”

He said the clerks need to reduce their costs, but if they don’t the legislature will figure out a way to handle it.

In the 2012-2013 budget, which has not yet been signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, lawmakers also approved $50 million — known as a “back of the bill” item — for the clerks to cover a deficit in the current year budget.

“The reality is that if they come up short next year just like this year they’re going to probably end up writing a back of the bill for the shortfall in next year’s budget,” Alexander said.

He also said the clerks fared better under the final plan than they would have under the House’s proposal, which would have equated to about a $50 million cut.

But the clerks insist he’s wrong because the House would have freed up about $33 million by allowing the clerks to stop paying 8 percent to the Department of Revenue, the amount most state agencies are required to pay to process payments. The clerks have been trying for years to convince lawmakers to exempt them from the processing fee because, they say, they handle all their payments and collections themselves.

And Alexander said the clerks receive money from the counties to perform their controller duties and questioned whether some of the funds intended to support court functions are being used to cover county responsibilities.

“That is so untrue that it borders on irresponsible,” Bock said, adding that the state constitution prohibits the clerks from blending the funds.

Bock says it’s unfair that the money the clerks give to the revenue department is used to fund projects unrelated to the courts.

“We’ve spent three years trying to explain to the state legislature that it is an inappropriate charge because DOR does not do any work for us,” she said. “It’s a shell game.”

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