Pasco Clerk of Courts Paula O'Neil could lose 19 workers or institute more than two weeks of unpaid furloughs in response to a legislative budget cut doled out to Florida's 67 clerks offices.
In last-minute budget negotiations, lawmakers agreed to cut those offices by $31 million, with $800,000 coming from Pasco. In a Wednesday letter to the county's nine lawmakers, O'Neil called the cuts an "unbelievable shock" and asked them to vote against the budget because of the harsh treatment to her office and fellow clerks.
"We knew nothing in advance," she said. "In fact, we've been told along, 'The clerks are fine, the clerks are fine. They're not going to cut the clerks.' "
O'Neil said she is still deciding what combination of staff cuts and furloughs to enact. Such reductions could mean longer lines for people paying fines or handling foreclosure cases. Turnaround times for documents likely will slow down.
In her letter to lawmakers, O'Neil said processing of new cases will be delayed, mostly for civil cases. She added, "The ability to comply with constitutional mandates for criminal due process is in question."
Longtime criminal attorney Keith Hammond of New Port Richey said the cuts strain clerks offices that are already under pressure. He pointed to a new requirement that clerks redact sensitive information such as Social Security numbers whenever a member of the public requests a court file. Lawmakers didn't provide any new funding to cover the new duties.
"The clerks that are already overworked have more work to do," he said.
The latest budget cut comes on top of a 20 percent reduction in 2009. When O'Neil first took office in 2008, her office had 435 people. It's now down to 348. Some of those positions are open, and O'Neil is not filling them until she can take stock of the full impact of this year's cut.
"We have not recovered from 2009 when I had to cut 85 positions," she said. "It's very damaging, and very disappointing in a state where government in the sunshine is supposed to be prevalent."
Other court-related groups such as judges, state attorneys and public defenders did not receive budget cuts this year.
In a late-night meeting Thursday, House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told O'Neil lawmakers were trying to work on a solution.
"We're hopeful for that," she said. But the cuts remained in the budget Friday when lawmakers gave final approval to the $70 billion spending plan. The agreement does allow clerks to apply for state loans to plug their budget holes.
Lee Logan can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.