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Decline in traffic tickets may result in eviction backlog in cash-strapped Pinellas courts

The drop in citations has left all clerks offices millions of dollars short, but Hillsborough and Pasco county governments have filled the gap.

Plummeting traffic tickets have blown a hole in the budgets of local courts millions of dollars wide.

Fewer people have been driving during the pandemic, and many cops are also practicing social distancing by avoiding minor traffic stops. Fewer tickets means less money for courts. As a result, Pinellas County’s clerk of courts warns, operations will be dramatically slower for civil cases — including for evictions and foreclosure filings that may skyrocket in the coming months.

Anyone who has called the Pinellas county clerk’s customer information center in recent days has been greeted with an unsettling automated message warning that the recent loss of a quarter of the office’s workforce will mean “wait times will be longer and court files cannot be processed as timely as when fully staffed.”

The clerks in both Hillsborough and Pasco counties were successful in getting emergency funding approved by their county governments, blunting the need for staff reductions.

But Pinellas clerk Ken Burke said he didn’t make a similar request because court funding should come from the state, and “by counties paying for a state responsibility, the state may grow to like that solution and even further erode its responsibility to properly fund the court system,” he said.

Burke, a Republican, was able to avoid laying off people by transferring 60 employees to the Pinellas supervisor of elections to help that office beef up their efforts through the November election.

Elections supervisor Julie Marcus said that a “light bulb went on” when she heard of Burke’s budgeting challenge.

“We are in need of good employees who can provide excellent service to our voters during a presidential elections cycle when we’re facing a coronavirus crisis,” she said. “I picked up the phone and said, ‘We can help each other.‘”

Burke sent out a letter on Tuesday to local lawyers, asking them to contact their state lawmakers to find a new funding model for clerks. The state’s funding of clerks has long been a point of contention, and Pasco county clerk Nikki Alvarez-Sowles agreed that this crisis should prompt a more permanent solution.

“The funding model is broken,” she said.

It may be bad timing for Burke’s office to be slower at processing new cases. Gov. Ron DeSantis recently extended a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures through August. He also changed the language from prior orders in a way that may encourage landlords with delinquent tenants to begin filing their eviction paperwork now to get in line, because it cleared up long-standing confusion over whether new filings are allowed.

Tampa landlord Sheila Haque rents out four residential properties, two of which are in Pinellas. One of her tenants missed July’s rent payment after apparently losing her job. Haque has been disappointed with DeSantis’ continual extensions of the moratoriums, saying mom-and-pop landlords are being grouped with large corporations who can afford to lose income.

Haque is considering filing for eviction, but was disheartened to learn of the processing delays in Burke’s office.

“It’s awful for people like us,” she said. “We’re caught in the crossfire.”

Times staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this report.

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