NEW PORT RICHEY — As this week’s Pasco County Commission meeting wrapped up, Pasco Clerk of Courts Nikki Alvarez-Sowles asked how much money she would be given to run her office in 2022.
She was guessing $5.96 million — less than half of what she asked for — but county budget documents weren’t clear. With the end of the current fiscal year approaching next month, she needs to finalize her annual spending plan.
County administrator Dan Biles said he would let her know.
For months, Alvarez-Sowles has haggled with Pasco officials over what she considers significant shortfalls in county funding for her office, which performs a wide range of record keeping, information management and financial management for the public, the court system and county government.
And budgeting, she said, is about setting priorities: “My office should be a priority.’'
An attorney, Alvarez-Sowles has been with the clerk’s office for more than a dozen years, but has only been Clerk of Court since she was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019. Last year, she won the seat when she faced no election opposition.
While Alvarez-Sowles said she has tried to work collaboratively, pointing to what she considers disparities in past funding practices, she worries she may need to turn to the courts to settle her funding questions.
In May, when the clerk’s budget proposal was due to the county, Alvarez-Sowles requested $13.3 million, a nearly-$9 million increase over the current fiscal year.
In her letter to the county, she wrote she had taken a hard look at Pasco County’s obligations to her office.
In the past, “the clerk’s office did not ask the county to sufficiently fund it in accordance with long–established provisions in Florida laws. ... Since 2010, Pasco’s population increased by 19 percent and the county increased staffing by 39 percent to provide additional services. In that same time frame, the Clerk’s Office cut 11 percent of its positions due to funding shortages.”
She sought funding increases for technology but as the budget process has moved forward, she was only granted half of what she requested. Alvarez-Sowles said she is the only constitutional officer not getting their full request. The biggest portion of her budget request increase, the cost of running the West Pasco Judicial Center, got a hard no from county budget officials.
County public information officer Ryan Hughes said her request was too much.
“The clerk’s fiscal year 2022 budget request was 209.5 percent greater than her budget request for the previous fiscal year. After several months of review and discussions between our budget team and the clerk’s team, we recommended that the Pasco Board of County Commissioners increase the clerk’s budget by 21.9 percent,” Hughes told the Tampa Bay Times in an email.
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There were several reasons the county didn’t approve the increase for the judicial center operations, Hughes said, “not the least of which is that the clerk’s office has operated the (center) for several decades within the confines of their state-funded budget.”
The clerk’s office is largely fee-based, and funding, Alvarez-Sowles said, “has always been a struggle.” When the recession hit hard nearly 15 years ago, the office cut 87 positions. Despite the county’s growth, she said the Pasco Clerk of Court has never caught up. Funding took another major hit with the pandemic. The $1.9 million Alvarez-Sowles received from the original federal COVID relief bill helped, but she decided to do more research.
“We took a real deep dive into Florida Statutes looking at all the funding that is available for the clerk,” she said. The conclusion was “we have not been asking the county for the proper funding.”
Hughes pointed out that the other constitutional officers are receiving a proportionally smaller increase in their budgets than the 21.9 percent recommended for Alavrez-Sowles and hers is not the only office receiving only a portion of their budget request.
The bigger and pricier dispute is over the county funding the clerk’s operations at the West Pasco Judicial Center.
Alvarez-Sowles said that the county is responsible for funding local requirements, and the second judicial center in New Port Richey was a county decision. However, Pasco County Attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder has said that county funding for the west side judicial center is not a local requirement.
“In 1998, voters amended the Florida Constitution to remove the responsibility of funding the state court system from local government” Hughes said. “The West Pasco Judicial Center was constructed in the 1960s and its operations have not changed in the recent past.”
“Until this budget request,” Hughes added, “all clerks since this constitutional amendment was approved, have sought and received funding for the West Pasco Judicial Center from the State of Florida, not the Board of County Commissioners.”
Earlier this month, Alvarez-Sowles publicly asked the County Commission whether it would join her in requesting an opinion from the Florida Attorney General, to determine what local requirements for funding her office are according to law. She has not received an answer.
“We do not believe that seeking an advisory opinion from the Florida Attorney General is needed as the Board of County Commissioners is well within its statutory rights and obligations,” Hughes told the Times.
Without a joint request for an opinion, Alvarez-Sowles said, “I will have to do what I have to do. ... I will have to file a lawsuit.”
Alvarez-Sowles said her office needs appropriate funding, because the services are critical to its many customers, from the government, the courts and the public.
Hughes said the issue needs perspective.
“The request we received does not align with the fiscal realities Pasco County faces,” he said.