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COURT CLERKS CUT HOURS

As workloads mount, the offices struggle to absorb a $31 million budget shortfall.

Overwhelmed by increasing workloads and another round of state budget cuts, court clerks all over Florida are following through on a threat to reduce hours.

The change will affect the Tampa Bay area, as well as residents in many of the state's most populous counties, including Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, and Broward. The hours reduction is part of a coordinated effort by court clerks across the state to absorb a $31 million budget cut the state Legislature passed in March. Citing a rising number of foreclosure cases and years of budget cuts, some court clerks said they are facing backlogs and mandatory deadlines that are increasingly difficult to meet.

Some of Florida's smaller counties, where clerks occasionally hold multiple administrative positions, are sticking to their current hours.

As of July 2, the window of time for residents to pay fines or file cases will narrow to 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, and Hernando, as well as many other counties where clerks agreed to the new hours. Although each county has its own schedule, many are currently open between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

"I hate to reduce the hours," said Ken Burke, the Pinellas clerk of court, "but we're basically at the breaking point."

Burke, who has a staff of 350 court clerks, said that over the last three years, his budget has shrunk by 17 percent. Unable to hire new employees to replace those who have left, he said he expects to be short 35 staff members a year from now.

At the same time, the recession has brought a deluge of foreclosure cases to Burke and other court clerks. Karen Rushing, the clerk of court in Sarasota, said she has watched the number of foreclosure cases rise to 360 a month this year, up from roughly 200 a month last year.

"We can't keep up with the work, and so we already have a backlog," she said.

Court clerks will not be working fewer hours, nor are they taking pay cuts. During the two hours that bookend their days, employees who currently help the public will be reassigned to cases that require an immediate response, such as recent arrests or domestic violence injunctions.

For those accustomed to stopping by the clerks office before or after the work day, the new schedule could be an inconvenience. And attorneys who time their days around 5 p.m. filing deadlines will have to aim for 4 p.m. or, in some counties, leave their cases in a drop box.

Rushing said there is still a chance that clerks will be able to reverse the hours reduction if the Joint Legislative Budget Commission decides to restore their funding. But a commission meeting that had been scheduled for next week has been canceled, leaving clerks with no option but to begin the new fiscal year on July 1 with less money.

You can reach Anna M. Phillips at 727-893-8779 or aphillips@tampabay.com.

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