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Pasco clerk takes her budget complaint to court

Clerk of Court Nikki Alvarez-Sowles makes good on her threat to the county by filing a lawsuit.
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. 17
Updated Nov. 17

NEW PORT RICHEY — Pasco Clerk of Court Nikki Alvarez-Sowles has filed a lawsuit against Pasco County claiming county officials failed to properly fund her department.

For months Alvarez-Sowles publicly and privately urged county officials to reconsider their financial support of her office. The lawsuit was filed Friday, several days after she told commissioners she was going to court over the disputed expenses.

She claims in the lawsuit that the county’s failure to properly fund her office forced her to divert funds from other sources, hurting her office’s operation.

Her lawsuit details two categories where she believes that the county has shorted her on funding. One is the technical system that tracks criminal justice information for various agencies. The other is the New Port Richey Judicial Center, an annex to the court functions in Dade City, which is the official county seat.

The court action cites changes made in uniform court funding rules that voters approved in 1998.

“Counties shall be required to fund the cost of communications services, existing radio systems, existing multi-agency justice information systems,” the lawsuit states. “Counties shall also pay reasonable and necessary salaries, costs and expenses of the state courts system to meet local requirements as determined by general law.”

Alvarez-Sowles argues that the county has provided only a portion of the funds needed to operate the multiagency justice information system that her office runs for the county for various agencies. While the plan is to increase that in the future, it burdens her office with the additional expenses to keep the technology running, even though the county acknowledges its obligations to the program and has the funding to pay the full cost, the lawsuit alleges.

For years, the county maintained the court information system but, in 2016, county officials asked the Clerk to retire it and switch to a modern program called CLERICUS. Alvarez-Sowles said that her office did so. “The consequence of being a good partner was that the Clerk began bearing the cost” of the system beginning in January 2017, according to the lawsuit.

West Pasco Judicial Center
West Pasco Judicial Center [ Times ]

On the costs of the West Pasco Judicial Center in New Port Richey, the complaint states that state law requires each county to maintain a fully functioning court facility in its county seat. The lawsuit argues that the county must pay for “local requirements” and that running a second fully functional judicial center in New Port Richey is the county’s choice and, therefore, the county’s fiscal responsibility.

Alvarez-Sowles told commissioners that her office took a harder look at its finances after the pandemic struck last year and concluded that the law clearly required the county to contribute more to her budget. When she submitted her financial requirements to the board in May, she requested $13.3 million, almost $9 million more than the current fiscal year.

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County officials had no comment on the lawsuit.