Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed a proposal to address court clerks’ long-standing budget issues.
Those problems have been magnified by declining funding from fines, fees and court costs. But the bill DeSantis approved (SB 838) strives to plug the leak.
Unlike many government entities, clerks’ offices operate on a cash basis month-to-month, depending on fines, fees and court costs to fund critical public services. There are many services and activities that have no associated fees or revenue, such as domestic violence injunctions and indigency cases.
The new law will allow clerks to carry statewide reserves to plan for emergencies, to submit funding requests for certain deficits and other provisions.
As Florida’s population has grown, funding for clerks’ offices has decreased sharply due to instability of revenue generated in the fines-and-fees-based system. Additionally, clerks are not funded in the General Appropriations Act and cannot carry statewide reserves to help with emergencies.
COVID-19 further exposed the flawed funding system, with clerks’ offices across the state facing severe budget reductions from July 2020 to September 2020 that averaged nearly 50%.
Bradenton Republican Sen. Jim Boyd filed that measure in late January before it passed through the legislative process unanimously.
“Clerks of Court and Comptrollers make up a large, essential piece of our court system, and throughout the pandemic they remained vigilant to ensure their services were available to residents,” Boyd said, adding that he looked forward to improving the funding system in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The proposal made up part of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers’ 2021 legislative priorities.
“We are extremely thankful to Governor DeSantis for signing SB 838 into law,” said Tara S. Green, Clay County Clerk of Court and Comptroller and the organization’s president president. “This legislation was thoughtfully written to help Clerks begin fixing the way our services are funded, so we can better help individuals and businesses that interact with the justice system. We look forward to begin working on its swift implementation for the benefit of our residents.”
During the budget process, the House set aside $6 million for the Clerks of Court Pandemic Recovery Plan through the “sprinkle list” process. The House and Senate had previously agreed to fund the plan at $250,000, but the additional funding was entirely at House leadership’s discretion.
Past budget reductions, compounded by the financial impacts of COVID-19, have caused Clerks across the state to take drastic measures that include staff layoffs, reduced operational hours and branch closures, Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers CEO Chris Hart IV wrote earlier this year.
An estimated 1 million extra court cases will be pending in the state’s court system by July. The additional caseload comes from court delays because of the pandemic and pandemic-generated cases related to both the public health emergency and declining economic conditions. That’s according to the Florida State Courts annual report.
The court’s backlog includes pending felony cases that top 27,000, which are expected to take several years to work their way through, according to the latest criminal justice estimates from state economists, compiled in March.