Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Politics

Court clerks face layoffs, service delays due to state cuts

TALLAHASSEE — If you have to pay a fine, report for jury duty or have a foreclosure case pending, brace yourself.

Florida's 67 court clerks say the public will face longer lines, shorter hours and more delays after the Legislature's decision to slash clerks' budgets statewide by $31 million, or 7 percent.

The latest in a series of spending cuts also threatens to close offices and lengthen the time it takes clerks to process paperwork and collect fines, such as for unpaid child support. Statewide, 900 jobs are at risk, clerks said. In Tampa Bay, 94 jobs risk being cut to make up for more than $4.6 million in reductions.

"It's just not going to be humanly possible for us not to have these delays," said Pinellas Clerk of Court Ken Burke, president of the state clerks association.

Burke, who lobbied in vain to reverse the Legislature's decision, said he will have to cut 38 of his workers to help absorb a $1.5 million hit. Burke's email late Thursday to staff was blunt: "It will not be pretty. I could sugar-coat this e-mail but it would be a lie."

Hillsborough Clerk of Court Pat Frank estimated that 42 jobs of 511 in her court staff would be lost to make up the $2 million reduction.

She said she hopes to find other savings — such as eliminating vacancies and holding off a state mandate to convert records to electronic form — to avoid layoffs.

"This is a question of having access to the courts. I'm sorry that the Legislature doesn't understand what we do," she said. "If they need to get funds, maybe they ought to be thinking about cutting their own health care."

Lawmakers' medical premiums are well below typical state workers premiums, though senators agreed to raise their payments in budget negotiations.

The civil courts side stands to take a hit because of mandatory duties, such as handling hearings in criminal cases, Burke said. That means one of his branch offices could close and office hours for the public could be reduced from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

That comes as at least some clerk's offices, such as Hernando Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai, report increases in civil filings in recent months. Instead of dismissing five employees, she hopes to rely on attrition to weather what she dubbed "a perfect storm."

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

The cash-strapped Legislature was desperate to find money to shore up some health and human services, and the key budget negotiators, Sen. JD Alexander and Rep. Denise Grimsley, settled on the clerks' budget as a one-year solution.

The arrangement allows clerks to apply for state loans to plug their budget holes.

Burke said clerks are especially angry because the Legislature shielded parts of the criminal justice system from cuts, including the court system, state attorneys and public defenders.

After budget deal-making this week, the clerks said they lost after being promised equal treatment.

"We knew nothing in advance," said Pasco Clerk of Court Paula O'Neil, whose office stands to lose $800,000, which translates to a loss of 19 positions, 15 unpaid furlough days or some combination of the two. "In fact, we've been told all along, 'The clerks are fine, the clerks are fine. They're not going to cut the clerks.' "

The funding is set in a spending cap, so there's no hope that Gov. Rick Scott can undo the reduction with a line-item veto, Burke said.

During floor debate on the state's new $70 billion budget, legislators in both parties criticized the decision to cut the court clerks' budgets. Conservative Republicans such as Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, said clerks are "competent and continuously high performing," and will be hurt by the decision.

"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. "If I could line-item veto, I'd fix that tonight. I can't."

Times staff writers Lee Logan, Tony Marrero and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at [email protected] or at (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/DeCampTimes.

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