Revenue changes for Court Clerks proposed to close funding gap

Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom
Clerk offices this year anticipate a $36.5M operational shortfall this year.

State lawmakers are again proposing changes to address the funding woes of Court Clerks whose yearly budgets have barely budged in the last decade.

Republican Sen. Travis Hutson and Rep. Adam Botana are carrying bills this year (SB 1130, HB 977) to diversify the revenues of Florida’s Clerk Offices.

Clerk Offices — there is one for each county — operate on a cash basis month-to-month and primarily rely on fines and fees to fund critical public services. They receive no apportionment in the state budget.

The bills would do three main things:

— Allow Clerks to retain more of the money they collect for localized services.

— Establish a state funding mechanism to cover annual increases to employee retirement system costs, which would free up local funds for minimum wage requirements and worker retention.

— Provide a reimbursement process for additional services where fees are waived.

Recent events and long-term analyses have revealed flaws in Florida’s funding model for its Clerk Offices, which is set forth in the Florida Constitution.

The early months of the pandemic saw a nearly 50% drop in operating revenue.

Over the past decade, from fiscal 2012 to 2022, court budgets grew 31%, State Attorneys’ budgets rose 34% and public defenders enjoyed a 39% uptick in funding, according to Polk County Clerk Stacy Butterfield. Clerks of Court, meanwhile, only had a 1.3% increase.

“Without essential funding, we can’t keep up with state, local and national wages,” she said during a Feb. 16 presentation to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Civil and Criminal Justice.

“Employee costs make up over 90% of our budgets. These staffing issues directly impact our services. They affect daily processing and access to case data and create threats to our accuracy, timing and increase the risk of errors.”

Legislation over the last two years has helped. In 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a measure by Bradenton Republican Rep. Jim Boyd to allow Clerks to carry statewide reserves to plan for emergencies and submit funding requests for certain deficits, among other provisions. In 2022, DeSantis ratified another measure easing payment plans for court fines — a change proponents believe will increase fee and fine revenue.

But more needs to be done. This year, Clerk Offices will operate with a $36.5 million funding gap between their needs-based budget and their current revenue-limited one, according to the Florida Court Clerks of Courts Operations Corporation.

Clerk Offices retain only about half the money they collect from fines and fees. Roughly 46% of that revenue goes back into the state for distribution to other agencies and outside trust funds.

Martin County Clerk and Comptroller Carolyn Timmann, President of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, said the bills by Hutson and Botana “will provide the resources we need to support our judicial and law enforcement partners and the diverse communities we serve statewide.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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