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State's court clerks slash services, personnel, to deal with budget cuts

Jason Mells, 36, of St. Petersburg is helped by Maryann Londo at the Pinellas County clerk’s branch office in St. Petersburg on Monday. Clerks of courts throughout Florida say fewer office hours and layoffs are just two consequences from a budget dispute between their offices and state lawmakers.
Published Jun. 30, 2015

Starting next week, Pinellas County residents will have five fewer hours a week to pay traffic tickets, get a marriage license or request domestic violence injunctions.

Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman says layoffs, furloughs and office-hour reductions are all on the table. In Pasco, Clerk of Courts Paula O'Neil has already laid off two employees.

Clerks of courts throughout Florida say fewer office hours and layoffs are just two consequences from a budget dispute between their offices and state lawmakers.

"The Senate was pretty much on our side and the House wasn't," said Forman, who faces a $2 million deficit. "And the House won."

Forced to make up a deficit in a state trust fund that feeds their budgets, court clerks agreed on Monday to slash their current budgets by 5 percent. The executive council of the Clerks of Court Operations Corp., the clerks' statewide budgeting arm, voted during a conference call to make official the across-the-board reductions.

They're blaming state lawmakers for the cuts.

"It is repugnant to me that due to the failure of the Florida Legislature, the citizens of Pinellas will be impacted by reduced service levels and that the dedicated employees of our clerk's office will be financially damaged," Pinellas Clerk Ken Burke wrote in an email to his employees last week.

Clerks are financed by a trust fund fed by revenue from fees and fines. The fund swelled with foreclosure filing fees after the housing bubble burst, so the Legislature diverted some of the money to other needs. Now, though, the fund is running a $22.4 million budget deficit due to a steep drop in foreclosures and speeding tickets, among other reasons.

"But the Legislature never restored money back to the clerks to make us whole," Burke said.

Faced with a $1.2 million reduction in his budget, Burke is avoiding layoffs by requiring his 310 state-funded employees to take two unpaid furlough days.

In Pasco, Clerk O'Neil is delaying acquiring shelves for two records storage sites and an information technology project, in addition to laying off a records clerk and a strategic enterprise director. But that only trims about $400,000 of the $621,724 she needs to reach 5 percent.

"We have to cut more, but we haven't made those decisions yet," said O'Neil, a member of the CCOC executive council.

Hillsborough Clerk Pat Frank must reduce her budget by $1.45 million, though she said she will not have to resort to layoffs, furloughs or office-hour reductions.

Hernando Clerk Don Barbee must cut nearly $169,000. During Monday's conference call, Miami-Dade Clerk Harvey Duvin said his 5 percent cut would cost $3.5 million and, when combined with an additional 7.5 percent hit from pay raises required by a union contract that's out of his control, would "devastate" his office.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, the Land O'Lakes Republican who chairs the House appropriations committee, did not return a message seeking comment Monday.

Part of the dispute revolved around special reserve funds that clerks have available to them.

Clerks by law may set aside 10 percent of court-related fines they collect to buy and operate technology to move toward a paperless operation and make public records more accessible. Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, said House budget leaders erroneously concluded clerks had enough in those pots to bridge their budget gap this year.

That may be true in some counties, but clerks are spending those dollars on technology and have little to none available to make up a shortfall, said Sarasota Clerk Karen Rushing, chairwoman of the legislative committee for the Florida Clerks and Comptrollers association. Rushing said her group answered questions from lawmakers about the fund.

"The outcome of the session leads one to wonder whether they understood or believed the information," Rushing said.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who chairs the Senate's appropriations committee, said the situation is "screaming" for legislative action. Probably the best solution, he said, is to give clerks authority to tap into other trust funds if the need arises.

"We can't keep doing this year after year," Lee said.

Contact Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

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