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Pain at Hernando County Clerk of Court, County Courthouse: layoffs, furloughs, pay cut

BROOKSVILLE — Fewer state dollars are prompting the Hernando County Clerk of Court's office to lay off employees, reduce staff hours and implement furloughs.

A similar pinch is being felt throughout the Hernando County Courthouse as state budget cuts trickle down to the local level.

All judges, state attorneys, public defenders and court personnel earning more than $45,000 will take a 2 percent pay cut next year. All other funding remained level, meaning the threatened layoffs and furloughs in the judiciary won't happen.

The salary cuts may not sound like much, but Chief Circuit Judge Daniel B. Merritt Sr. said they follow three years without raises.

"It is not unsubstantial," he said outside his Brooksville office.

This year, however, the clerk's office is facing the most pain.

Hernando Clerk Karen Nicolai said the state cut her budgets for the next fiscal year by roughly $650,000, or 18 percent. Other counties received much steeper staff cuts.

She said she mitigated the impact by not filling a half-dozen open positions. But she still needed to trim more than $100,000 from her $4.2 million budget.

She recently laid off a full-time clerk who computerizes old court files and a part-time clerk who answers questions at the front desk at the courthouse entrance.

"I'm not as bad (off) as most clerks," she said. "We are not as big. Plus, we made sure we were downsizing as we went."

A number of other clerk employees are voluntarily reducing their work schedules from five to four days, and the highest-paid employees are taking an unpaid furlough day.

Nicolai took these measures to avoid a broader pay cut.

All of this occurs as the court system gets bombarded with additional cases prompted by the downturn in the economy, such as foreclosure claims.

Residents will likely see the effects in a slower-moving court system. "I would hope they don't see them too much," Nicolai said.

Nicolai's $126,577 salary is controlled by the state but she plans on taking a symbolic furlough day. She said she would donate one day's pay to the clerk's office. "It's just as if I didn't get paid for the day," she said.

The coming fiscal year marks a change in the way the clerk's offices finances are handled.

In this year's legislative session, the judiciary and clerks battled over control of court-related functions and finances. In the end, the Legislature took oversight of the clerks' budget and ordered a study of the court and clerk operations that could result in the transfer of some duties.

The Florida Association of Court Clerks estimates the recent changes in Tallahassee could eliminate 1,500 to 1,800 positions statewide.

The fight left hard feelings. Nicolai said her relationship with Merritt, who supported the changes, is "very strained" but declined to discuss specifics.

Merritt felt the opposite.

"I think people can have differences of opinion on important issues without it having to be personal," he said. "I have no animus for Karen at all."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (352) 754-6114.

Pain at Hernando County Clerk of Court, County Courthouse: layoffs, furloughs, pay cut 05/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 22, 2009 6:29pm]
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