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Pasco clerk will take county to court in fight for more funding

Clerk Nikki Alvarez-Sowles has argued that the county has underfunded her office for years.
Nikki Alvarez-Sowles, Esq., Clerk and Comptroller, attends a Pasco County Commission meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, at the West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey.
Nikki Alvarez-Sowles, Esq., Clerk and Comptroller, attends a Pasco County Commission meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2021, at the West Pasco Government Center in New Port Richey. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 10, 2021|Updated Nov. 10, 2021

DADE CITY — Pasco County Clerk of the Circuit Court Nikki Alvarez-Sowles will take the Pasco County Commission to court in an ongoing dispute over funding for her office.

During Tuesday’s commission meeting, Alvarez-Sowles called out the county’s officials. She said that despite multiple attempts to resolve her issues with the county paying its legal share of expenses for technology and the costs of running the West Pasco Judicial Center, legal action is her only choice left.

Her last attempt, a letter to the county dated Oct. 27 and asking for full funding, garnered no reply from anyone at the county, and no commissioner brought it up for discussion earlier in Tuesday’s meeting.

“The Clerk’s Office budget adopted by the board is inadequate,” Alvarez-Sowles said. “My office is left with no alternative but ask the court to clarify the statutory obligations and funding requirements,” adding that she was confident her requests were supported by law.

Alvarez-Sowles told the board it was not the conversation she hoped to have with them. “I don’t want to take the board to court, but I must do the right thing for my office and for the citizens of Pasco County,” she said.

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 at that time, she said she had taken a hard look at Pasco County’s obligations to her office.

She sought funding increases for technology but was granted only a portion of what she requested. Alvarez-Sowles has also argued that the county is responsible for funding operations of its duplicate judicial center in New Port Richey, since her office pays the costs of the Dade City judicial center — a mandated portion of her budget because it is the courthouse in the county seat.

The clerk of court has a wide range of obligations under Florida law, including record keeping, information management and financial management tasks for the public, the court system and county government.

Commissioner Mike Moore said he was also unhappy that the dispute had come down to a court action. He questioned Alvarez-Sowles about why these requests were new for the 2022 budget and why previous clerks hadn’t asked for more.

Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore questioned why previous clerks of court had not also requested more funding.
Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore questioned why previous clerks of court had not also requested more funding. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Alvarez-Sowles said that was a question for previous officials. She took office in 2019 and when the pandemic broke, she was forced to look not just at current funding practices but how to resolve years of what she considered underfunding. She said her “deep dive” into the funding laws convinced her it was time to receive from the county what her office was entitled to.

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When Moore pressed her on how the bills had been paid in the past, Alvarez-Sowles said that she had to ask other clerks across the state for funding and that it was “asking your neighbors to pay the bills.”

While Moore asserted that the funding was not a crisis until last year, Alvarez-Sowles responded that “our budget has not been fine for years.”

Moore also said the county last year gave Alvarez-Sowles funds from federal COVID-19 relief to help run her office, which she acknowledged. At that point, County Commission Chairman Ron Oakley shut down the conversation to move on to other business.

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