BROOKSVILLE — When Don Barbee took the reins last year as Hernando County clerk of the court, he inherited a huge problem. Not only were foreclosure filings continuing at a high level, there was the dilemma of what to do about cases that had languished far longer than normal in the courts.
The foreclosure logjam dated back several years, but by January 2013 it had reached critical mass, with nearly 3,500 cases on the books and only two judges hearing them. At the same time, Barbee's office was dealing with deep budget cuts that gripped every county government agency.
"When I started, there were stacks of paperwork everywhere, and many cases seemed to be caught in limbo," Barbee recalled.
"We were simply overwhelmed, and it just kept snowballing from there."
In fact, what was occurring in Barbee's office was happening in nearly every part of the state, as a flood of mortgage defaults during the prolonged recession hit the courts. Many foreclosures got bogged down by what became known as the "robo-signing scandal" by lenders, which caused lengthy delays while the courts sorted things out.
From 2008 through 2012, while most of the state was still waiting for the recession to bottom out, courts got more and more buried by delays.
In 2009 alone, Florida foreclosures topped 516,000, with 3,322 of those cases filed in Hernando.
Before the housing market bust, a typical foreclosure case could sail through the court system in as little as six months. In 2011, the wait was often three times that long, according to the real estate research company RealtyTrac.
Starting in 2012, the Legislature infused Florida's 20 judicial districts with about $9.6 million to help clear the backlog. That effort, plus new state guidelines that call for hastening the pace at which cases are handled, has helped to drastically change the tide in Hernando.
Barbee said that his office received about $60,000 in extra funding for staffing. Meanwhile, the courts added three part-time senior judges whose only duties are to administer foreclosures.
As of July 1 of this year, there were 1,778 open cases, about half the number that were active when he took office; 660 of those had been filed during the past 12 months.
"It took some time, but we were finally able to clear out old cases that were three, four and five years old, which allowed us to concentrate more on newer cases," Barbee said.
He hopes the implementation this fall of a paperless case-maintenance system will further streamline the handling of new cases.
While Florida still leads the nation in foreclosures, with almost 270,000 filings last year, the number of new cases continues to shrink as the economy improves.
In the meantime, Hernando County Association of Realtors president Ana Trinque said the success of the backlog initiative has helped the real estate market rebound from years of downturn. And although some predicted that the sudden freeing up of properties mired in foreclosure would create a market glut, Trinque said she hasn't seen that.
"I think our market is in position to handle some added properties if they are the kinds of homes that people are looking for," she said. "We're pretty much caught up right now. Our inventory is shrinking. I think everyone is hopeful that will continue."
Contact Logan Neill at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.