BROOKSVILLE — More than a dozen staffers in the five-county judicial circuit that includes Hernando County face layoffs or reduced hours under a plan finalized Thursday by the chief judge for the 5th Judicial Circuit.
State budget cuts forced Brooksville-based Chief Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr. to trim the circuit's spending by 9.8 percent, or about $468,000, for the coming fiscal year.
Without providing specifics, Merritt said the cuts will come predominantly from court administration, which works behind the scenes handling the business side of the court system. Judges and judicial assistants are not affected.
The belt-tightening is the result of a faltering economy and declining state revenues. The financial crunch prompted the Legislature to make wholesale spending cuts the past two years.
Statewide, the judicial system took a $43.7-million hit, which will affect about 300 court employees in circuits throughout Florida.
For the court system, the cuts come at a particularly bad time, as judges' caseloads grow.
"A lot of people don't realize that when you have bad economic times court filings go up," Merritt said. "We are getting more and more cases with fewer and fewer people to handle them."
Judicial officials are warning that a reduced staff will delay many low-priority cases, particularly traffic violations and civil litigation such as evictions and foreclosures. Criminal cases and urgent family law matters are expected to remain on track.
"It's not going to stop, but it's going to be slower," said David Trammell, the circuit court's administrator based in Ocala.
The 5th Judicial Circuit, which comprises Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter counties, will lose the equivalent of nine full-time positions from a work force of 90. But not all represent layoffs; some full-time employees will be converted to part-time to save money. Only one employee in Hernando County is directly affected, Trammell said.
"I'll tell you it's not a pleasant thing," Merritt said in an interview. "In order to get to the budget dollars we were allocated, these positions have to go. I feel badly for those people who are going to be laid off."
The judge submitted his plan to a state commission for approval ahead of Friday's deadline but declined to give details because it could still change.
"At this point it wouldn't be fair for me to tell you," he said. "I don't want to have a panic amongst the employees."
Approval is expected next week, and Merritt said he will tell affected employees the first week of June. The cuts take effect July 1.
Merritt cautions it likely won't be the last time. He noted that state revenues are still falling below projections.
"This may not be the end," he said. "We may be looking next year at additional cuts."
John Frank can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 754-6114.