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Jax Daily Record Monday, Oct. 26, 201512:00 PM EST

Funding issues plague clerks around the state

by: David Chapman

A quick click on the Orange County Clerk of Courts website brings one to a standard-looking home page with a greeting that talks budget shortfalls for clerks offices across the state.

In Broward County, there’s a welcome message but no mention of cuts. Instead, it comes just below — reduced hours, 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. for most court-related services. Again, “As a result of the Clerks of Court not being adequately funded.”

Lee County’s website links to an editorial discussing the cuts and possible consequences at the office.

Clerks offices in the 4th Judicial Circuit, comprising Clay, Duval and Nassau counties, don’t have similar messages on their websites — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t feeling the pinch.

Overall, clerks’ offices across the state have a $448 million approved budget. They need about $475 million.

Duval County ranks among the highest funded, but it still isn’t enough. It should be about $20 million, according to a state weighted-workload formula. Instead, it was budgeted $16.8 million last year

Like all clerks across the state, though, it had to take a 5 percent cut in the last quarter. More than $800,000 was trimmed, mostly through vacancies that couldn’t be filled.

No layoffs, furloughs or reduced hours, though.

“Thus far, we have been able to make adjustments that have not had a direct impact on day to day operations,” Duval County Clerk Ronnie Fussell said. “Further budget reductions would require us to make some difficult operational decisions.”

Duval’s office is one of 20 that break even or bring in more than it’s budgeted through judicial filing fees, service charges and costs from court-related functions. But essentially, it’s a donor county. It can’t break its budget cap set by the state. Whatever revenue exceeds the cap is sent to a trust fund that provides assistance to other counties.

Nassau County, its circuit-mate, is one such county that needs such help — this year pulling in about $25,000 a month.

For the third year in a row, Nassau County submitted a flat budget of about $1.6 million.

The 5 percent cut was about $83,000 — enough to eliminate a 2½ percent salary increase for employees and scouring accounts for savings.

“We really had to scrimp,” said Robert Crawford, an accounting manager for the Nassau office.

There is some relief, but it also comes at a cost.

On top of what they are allowed, clerks can keep 10 percent of most fines that can be used for additional operational needs and enhancements.

Crawford said Nassau’s “rainy day” account had about $334,000 — but it’s now wiped out to help cover cuts. Others across the state have had to also dip into those accounts.

The outlook for next year isn’t any better. Crawford said this year is manageable, but the next? He’s losing sleep over it.

“About 93 percent of our budget is personnel,” he said. “You keep cutting like this …,” he said before stopping.

Officials from the Clay County Clerk of Courts were out of the office and not available Friday.

In the past few years, a combination of cuts and help from the Legislature has helped cover gaps. This year, the state didn’t, which led to the cuts.

In September, the Court Operations Corp., which represents clerks across the state, sent a letter to the Legislative Budget Commission seeking to finalize its budget while noting the almost $26 million shortfall. The group will work with the Legislature in the upcoming session on a strategy to address the funding challenges.

For now, the Duval and Nassau offices are holding tight. But without help in the coming year, visitors to their websites might also read of the bad news.

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