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7 percent budget cut puts Hernando County clerk of courts in a bind

BROOKSVILLE — Karen Nicolai arrived to work Friday with a tough task ahead of her.

The budget the state Legislature was expected to pass later in the day included an across-the-board 7 percent cut for county clerk of court operations. It's now up to Nicolai, preparing her 24th and final annual budget before retiring as Hernando's clerk, to deal with an increasing case load with fewer resources.

"How do you plan for something like this?" Nicolai said. "How do you all of a sudden take this much money and figure out what's not going to get a done?"

Desperate to trim the state budget, lawmakers settled on clerk's offices as a one-year solution, slashing a total of $31 million. Clerks throughout the state warned that the move would result in hundreds of layoffs, delays in service and reduced office hours.

For Nicolai, it means a roughly $240,000 hit to her $3.3 million budget for court operations. That equates to five full-time positions, or about 10 percent of her 63-member courts staff.

Nicolai said she hopes to avoid layoffs. But because 85 percent of the budget goes to staffing costs, that could be an unrealistic goal. Ideally, she said, at least some of the savings will come through attrition.

Cutting hours is probably the last strategy she will consider, she said, because it would result in relatively little savings and won't change what has been an increasing workload.

The public and attorneys who deal with Nicolai's office will likely feel the effects in other ways, though.

Because of due process rights of the accused, work associated with criminal cases must remain the top priority, Nicolai said. While the criminal case load has remained about the same, she estimated that the volume of civil court filings has increased by at least 15 percent in the last few months, primarily due to a spike in foreclosure and sinkhole cases.

Civil issues such as domestic violence injunctions will continue to take priority. Other civil matters, such as divorce filings, "are just going to have to wait," Nicolai said.

The court budgets had remained status quo for the last two years, but in 2009-10 lawmakers approved an 18 percent reduction. Nicolai's courts staff has shrunk by five since then.

"It's kind of a perfect storm," she said.

A likely target for cuts is the Saturday work program Nicolai put in place about a year ago to transfer paper records to microfilm to free up space in the storage center next door to the government center in downtown Brooksville. Nicolai planned to use the Saturday program to stay on top of a new requirement to redact personal information from documents. Much of that work is done electronically, but manual checks are still necessary, she said.

"I don't know how we're going to keep up, I really don't," she said.

The manner in which county clerks are funded, Nicolai said, makes the cut especially galling. The courts side of clerk operations are fee-based, but clerks send that money to the state each month, and the state takes 8 percent and redistributes the balance back to clerks.

The cuts to clerks was one of "many things I have a problem with" in this year's budget, Sen. Mike Fasano said Friday afternoon before the vote. The New Port Richey Republican's district includes about half of Hernando County.

"I think the clerks have every right to be concerned," Fasano said. "I'm still trying to understand the rationale behind it."

Nicolai's office has generally been efficient over the years, said John Keller, a Brooksville attorney who specializes in probate law.

"We're used to getting our orders pretty quick," Keller said. "If there's a cut, it could slow down a lot of stuff for families."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

7 percent budget cut puts Hernando County clerk of courts in a bind 03/09/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 9, 2012 8:29pm]
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