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Pinellas court clerk says budget cuts will slow down legal proceedings

If you have to deal with a legal matter like a landlord-tenant dispute or executing the will of a deceased relative, then prepare to wait for weeks.

That's what Pinellas Clerk of Court Ken Burke is saying in the wake of the Florida Legislature's recent decision to slash clerks' budgets.

"It's frustrating," he said. "People say they want smaller government, but they don't want to stand in long lines."

The budget of Florida's 67 court clerks was reduced by $31 million statewide, or 7 percent. Burke, who lobbied in vain to reverse the Legislature's decision, figures he'll have to cut 38 of about 350 Pinellas workers to help absorb a $1.5 million cut.

So, what differences will the public see?

For starters, this will mean shorter office hours at the Pinellas clerk's five locations, which are now open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The clerk's operation is looking at 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. instead, which could make it a bit harder for working people to get there.

At this point, Burke doesn't anticipate closing any of the five offices. The clerk has locations at the Clearwater Courthouse, 315 Court St.; the Pinellas Criminal Justice Center, 14250 49th St. N in Largo; and branches at 545 First Ave. N in downtown St. Petersburg, 1800 66th St. N in west St. Petersburg, and 29582 U.S. 19 N in Palm Harbor.

At first glance, a 7 percent budget cut might not seem like that big a deal. However, it's the latest in a series of annual spending cuts that have forced clerks to scale back services. "There's no more wiggle room to say, 'Okay, we're just going to Band-Aid this so there won't be any impact to the public,'" Burke said.

Also, because of the way the clerk's job is set up, the cuts will have a disproportionate impact on civil and probate court, while criminal courts are untouched.

Everything the clerk of court does is mandated by state law. But some tasks have mandated deadlines, while others don't.

"I have to provide a court clerk in every criminal proceeding, every civil proceeding that has a jury, every traffic court proceeding," Burke said. And every request for a domestic violence injunction must be taken to a judge on the same day the form is filled out.

"The only areas we can cut are those with discretionary time frames," Burke said, offering some examples:

• Say you're a landlord who needs to evict a tenant who won't pay rent. You go to a clerk's office and fill out a form. "It's going to take 10 days before we even open the file," Burke said.

• Say you're the executor of a deceased relative's will. There will be a significant delay before you can get access to estate funds to pay funeral expenses, medical bills, electric bills for the deceased person's home. "Sometimes you're a relative from out of town, and timeliness is important. If you're in town for a funeral, you don't want to wait three weeks."

• Older Pinellas court records are stored in a records center at 14155 49th St. N across the street from the Criminal Justice Center in Largo. Now, you can go straight there to get those files. But that building might be closed to the public due to lack of staffing. You'd have to request that older court files be sent to another clerk's office for viewing, which would take longer.

A Republican, Burke was elected in 2004 to replace longtime Pinellas clerk Karleen DeBlaker, who retired.

Court clerks are independently elected constitutional officers, but the Legislature has controlled their budgets since 2009.

At the end of the legislative session earlier this month, cash-strapped lawmakers were desperate to find money to shore up some health and human services. The key budget negotiators, Sen. JD Alexander and Rep. Denise Grimsley, settled on the clerks' budget as a one-year solution.

During floor debate on the budget, legislators in both parties criticized the decision to cut the court clerks' budgets.

"What we have done to the clerks in this state … is we've got both arms handcuffed behind their backs, and we must fix that," said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Send letters to the editor at tampabay.com/letters.

Pinellas court clerk says budget cuts will slow down legal proceedings 03/20/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 7:59pm]
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