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Legislature squeezes clerks of court budgets more tightly than judiciary

Local clerks of court sounded downright depressed Monday as they grappled with the fallout of the legislative session.

They didn't lose any duties to the judiciary, whom the elected clerks had accused of orchestrating a power grab this spring. But the Legislature will now have oversight of the clerks' finances, which are expected to take a significant hit if the governor signs the state budget.

Layoffs and salary cuts are inevitable, clerks said.

Pinellas Clerk Ken Burke let eight people go Monday. "And that's just a start," he said.

Hillsborough Clerk Pat Frank said the turf war severely damaged relationships with the judicial leadership, and the legislative process left clerks feeling like they had few friends in Tallahassee.

But her employees were her chief concern.

The nearly 18 percent budget reduction for clerks' offices statewide will result in one out of nine employees losing their jobs, she said. She didn't yet know how many people in Hillsborough would be affected by the county's $6.3 million cut.

"Very bad," she said. "Very, very depressing."

The courts fared better. Funding will remain level, meaning more layoffs or furloughs are unlikely.

But court officials weren't exactly turning cartwheels.

Judges, state attorneys, public defenders and court personnel making more than $45,000 will get a 2 percent pay cut after several years without raises. The move will save the state about $30 million but demoralizes employees, officials said.

The fight over the clerks' court-related functions isn't necessarily over.

Legislators directed the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability and the Auditor General's Office to study the budgets and efficiency of court and clerk operations. That study could recommend transferring some duties from one entity to the other or none at all.

Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Robert Morris said the state was smart to study the current landscape before making such drastic change.

He isn't worried about future dealings with the clerks in his circuit's two counties.

"There's no question that people got their feelings hurt over this," he said. "But I think at the end of the day, everybody's a professional, and we all need to work together."

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337.

Legislature squeezes clerks of court budgets more tightly than judiciary 05/11/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 11, 2009 11:47pm]
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