Pasco Republican leader urges county commissioners to end budget dispute

Pasco’s clerk Nikki Alvarez-Sowles sued the county in 2021 over failing to fully fund her budget.
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 Jan. 27|Updated Jan. 27

Casually dressed in a hoodie and jeans, James Mallo stood before the Pasco County Commission this week and urged the board to end the ongoing legal spat with Pasco County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller Nikki Alvarez-Sowles.

He said he wasn’t wearing a specific title that day, but commissioners know him for both of his jobs — major of operational logistics in the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office and chairman of Pasco County’s Republican Executive Committee. Alvarez-Sowles and all five county commissioners are Republicans.

In 2021, Alvarez-Sowles sued the county for not properly funding her offices. A local court ruling in that case could come soon but officials say appeals are likely. Dragging out the case, which could ultimately set a state precedent on funding clerks’ offices, is not helping Pasco County, Mallo said.

“I’m here to ask you directly to stop the madness that is going on and negotiate with the ... clerk,” he said, adding that it has become an embarrassment to all constitutional officers and their constituents.

The lawsuit alleges that the county has provided only a portion of the money needed to operate the multiagency justice information system that the clerk runs for the county. County officials decided to phase in the funding over several years, forcing the clerk to juggle funds internally to pay for technology costs.

The other half of the dispute involves costs associated with the West Pasco Judicial Center in New Port Richey. The lawsuit says that state law requires each county to maintain a fully functioning court facility in its county seat, the county courthouse in Dade City. 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.

“What the clerk is asking for is very basic: paying for the (information technology) needs of the office, which there is no question the county is responsible for,” Mallo said. The other part of the dispute reflects clerk expenditures related to Pasco’s unique geographic concerns and historic growth patterns, he said.

Mallo said the county could easily find the $1 million for technology and $7 million for courthouse operations in its $3 billion budget without raising taxes, “as long as there is reasonable and proper prioritization.”

Commission Chairman Jack Mariano said he had met with the clerk earlier in the week and wanted more discussion.

Alvarez-Sowles agreed that Pasco didn’t need to set a statewide precedent. “I am open and I am happy to sit down and meet with all of you to discuss a resolution without having to go through the court system and have a judge decide our issue,” she said.

Commissioner Gary Bradford asked if it was in the commissioners’ power to simply end the lawsuit. County attorney Jeffrey Steinsnyder said that was something he would rather answer behind closed doors. Such closed meetings are allowed by law when discussing litigation strategy. Commissioners agreed to have such a meeting with the attorney Feb. 7.