CLERK & COMPTROLLER Announces layoff of 66 EMPLOYEES
Legislation forces Clerks statewide to make drastic cuts to staff and services by July 1
WEST PALM BEACH, FL (May 30, 2009) – Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock announced Friday that 66 of her employees would be cut to meet a state-mandated $7.1 million (18 percent) reduction in the office’s budget by July 1. The cuts, which resulted from the passage of Senate Bills 2108 and 1718 during this year’s legislative session, will significantly impact service levels at the Clerk’s seven Palm Beach County locations.
The bills, initiated by Florida judges and supported by the Florida Bar, were sponsored by Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff and Sen. Ken Pruitt. Initially, the legislation called for an elimination of Florida’s elected clerk of courts through a transfer of the clerks’ duties to the judiciary. The bills were modified following strong public opposition to the duties transfer. The final legislation allows clerks to maintain their duties, places them in the legislative appropriations process, and reduces the budgets by which they operate by $46 million statewide. An interesting twist to the legislation, however, is that unlike other court and state agencies that receive funding from the state, Clerks must raise the money to cover their budgets by collecting fees. If they don’t collect enough fees, their budgets are reduced even further. Bock said that with the required staff cuts, the office will have fewer people to pursue and collect millions in unpaid traffic and court fees, which will lead to more budget cuts. “It’s a vicious cycle designed to underfund us into extinction,” she said.
The Clerk’s office began strategically reducing staff and expenses more than a year ago when fee revenue significantly decreased due to the downturn in the real estate market. Operating expenses were cut by 33 percent, positions were eliminated and several departments or functions were consolidated for increased efficiency.
Thirty-two employees accepted an offer from Bock earlier this month to voluntarily leave the office on June 30 with a full payout on their sick leave, rather than the normal 25 to 50 percent offered under current termination policies. On Friday, May 29, an additional 34 employees were notified during staff meetings that they were being laid off. They will leave the office on June 12 and receive four weeks of wages to assist them with their transition. With these layoffs and the positions previously eliminated, the office has cut 101 positions, which is 16 percent of management positions and 12 percent of hourly positions, in the past year.
The Clerk & Comptroller’s office, which currently employs more than 800 employees in offices throughout Palm Beach County, handles the “business arm” of the court system. Employees receive, file and retrieve court documents, process fees and traffic fines, and enter and maintain case information in the court’s computer system, making the information readily available to the public.
Because the legislation moved up the Clerk’s funding year start date by three months, from October 1 to July 1, the impact of the severe staff cuts has yet to be fully studied. However, with an annual loss of over 210,000 man-hours, inevitable service level reductions, unprecedented backlogs and increases in waiting time are expected. For example, staff reductions will require the closing of windows at front counters designated to expedite transactions for civil and criminal attorneys, causing an estimated increase in the average wait time for attorneys from seven minutes to one hour. Several other practices focused on customer convenience, like same-day payment for cash bonds, will be discontinued. Document processing, instead of taking a day or two, may take several weeks as court case workloads continue to increase. In addition, the office will no longer have funding for overtime, which traditionally has been used to clear out heavy backlogs such as those caused by the skyrocketing increase in foreclosure case filings—up 113 percent between 2007 and 2008 alone. “Justice is denied whether there are not enough judges to hear a case or not enough clerks to process the case,” Bock said. “To the public we serve, the results are the same. No access to the court system.”
The office has maintained an average 98 percent customer satisfaction rating for the past several years and earned the Governor’s Sterling Award in part because of its focus on customer service. “It’s no longer business as usual,” said Bock. “This legislation has destabilized Clerks’ offices throughout the state, and unfortunately, the public will suffer the most.”
Government agencies throughout the state are making sacrifices and taking deep cuts, but Bock said this legislation has forced Florida’s Clerks to cut far deeper than any state agency. According to published reports, state employees are facing a .3 to .5 percent staff reduction compared to the 15.5 percent cut of Clerk employees throughout the state.
Bock’s office took numerous steps to ensure that the layoffs were conducted with respect and compassion. Transition Workshops, scheduled for June 2 – 4, will provide employees with counseling resources and assistance in areas such as job hunting strategies, resume-writing, interview preparation and unemployment compensation.
The Florida Constitution established the independent office of the Clerk & Comptroller as a public trustee, responsible for safeguarding public records and public funds. Clerk Sharon Bock is directly elected by and accountable to Palm Beach County residents. In addition to the roles of Clerk of the Circuit Court, County Recorder and Clerk of the Board of County Commissioners, the Clerk & Comptroller is the Chief Financial Officer, Treasurer and Auditor for Palm Beach County.
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