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Chris Hart: Florida’s court clerks are facing a budget crisis — that means changes for everyone

This is the year we need to work together to make sure these services are available to Floridians. 

2020 is a year we will never forget.

We’ve seen the impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic on businesses, restaurants, and supplies, as well as on the lives and livelihoods of residents across our state. While we have been forced to weather some level of uncertainty, there are things we expect to be operational regardless of a pandemic. Essential government services fall in that category.

Yet in counties across the state of Florida, that is not always the case.

Today, if you call the Clerk of the Circuit Court in your community, regarding anything from an injunction to protect a domestic violence victim or a vulnerable senior from abuse, or to simply access court records or inquire about jury duty, you may be met with a recording saying the office is closed for the day due to budget issues.

If the office is open, you may be in for a long wait. What gives?

You might assume the problem was with your local Clerk of the Circuit Court, yet he/she has no control over the amount of their budget — by Florida statute, it is determined at a statewide level and funded by fines, fees, court costs and service charges collected statewide.

Similar to a small business, the money a Clerk collects this month funds services for the next month. Also, state law prohibits Court Clerks from maintaining a reserve or emergency fund.

You may not realize that the revenue from traffic tickets funds many other services provided by the Clerk — including criminal casework and critical services with no fee to the customer, such as domestic violence injunctions.

So, with Floridians asked to stay “safer-at-home” this resulted in fewer tickets and fewer fines being collected since March. Despite much of the workload for Clerks’ essential services continuing, revenues that support our services immediately crashed, and now Clerks across the state are faced with budget reductions for July through September that average nearly 50%.

And by all indications, reductions will continue into the new fiscal year starting October 1.

The statewide budget that funds Clerks’ services is now lower than the budget they had 15 years ago, and our state has grown dramatically in that time. The impacts are very real. For example, in Manatee County, the Courts Department has been reduced from 93 to 67 employees, with three more trial clerks being transferred out of the trial division to cover other duties in the office. There is now no staff left to work the Family/Civil/Juvenile counters.

And soon, with the courts reopening, there will not be enough Clerks for the courtrooms to support the judicial system. This is just one of many examples of the crisis and tough choices many Clerks are facing.

In some areas, county governments have been able to provide some emergency relief, even though Clerks’ court-related services are a state-funded operation. Still, the consequences across the state are dire.

Clerks believe they have an obligation to make their communities aware of this issue. The COVID-19 mitigation, as well as how our services are funded, has caused an immediate budget crisis for Clerks statewide, and they need immediate emergency assistance to provide important essential services across the state.

By law, this can only be addressed at the state level by the Legislature when they are back in session, or through emergency action by the Governor. Our professional association, Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, is working closely with the Governor’s office and legislative leadership on potential emergency funding options. However, so far, no additional funds have been made available for these essential services.

The current crisis raises many questions about both short and long-term solutions in how best to fund Clerks’ services.

As residents of your county and the state of Florida, you deserve to have essential services provided to you when you call your Clerk’s office. You expect an immediate response to protect vulnerable seniors from abuse or to protect a victim of domestic violence. You expect to have court staff to ensure all evidence is safeguarded, and personal information protected in court documents. You expect trials to resume and the huge backlog of cases to begin to diminish.

This crisis has further revealed that the system that funds our services is broken. As we address the short-term emergency, we must work with our partners in the state legislature to find a more sustainable solution.

This upcoming session, Clerks will present lawmakers with our ideas and solutions, including simple changes like allowing reserves for future emergencies. The Legislature has tried to help in the past, and we are thankful, but the underlying problems persist.

This is the year we need to work together to make sure these services are available to Floridians.

Please join your own elected Court Clerk and the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers Association in asking our state and Governor to work with Clerks on immediate and long-term solutions to this crisis.

Our residents have a right to expect that when they call on their locally elected Clerk of Courts, they will receive the essential services they want and need.

___

Chris Hart is CEO of the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers Association.

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