CLERK BRACES FOR MORE STAFF CUTS IN WAKE OF
WARNING FROM STATE CFO
Immediate hiring freeze implemented to offset anticipated impact of
$1.6 million cut in Palm Beach County on Feb. 22
WEST PALM BEACH, FL (February 9, 2010) – Blasted by $46 million in budget cuts during the 2009 Legislative session, Florida’s Clerks of Court were forced last year to lay off 1500 of its 9000 employees statewide. Now, as the 2010 session approaches, the 67 clerks face another statewide cut, as a February 4 letter from Florida CFO Alex Sink’s office demands immediate payment by the clerks of $42 million in administrative fees by February 22 – fees that, if paid, will render the state court system virtually inoperable.
In Palm Beach County, the Clerk & Comptroller’s office handles more than 500,000 new cases and more than 5 million court documents each year. Clerk employees are assigned to courtrooms during trials and enter complex court case information into a comprehensive computer system that is available to the public.
In a January 13 letter to the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince said, “Everything the court system does affects the circuit court clerks and, similarly, everything the circuit court clerks do in performance of their court-related functions has consequences for the courts. The inefficiency of one necessarily has ramifications for the other.”
The $42 million fee is the result of 2009 legislation that requires clerks to transmit money they collect to the Florida Department of Revenue (DOR). The law mandates an 8 percent annual administrative fee be paid by the clerks to DOR. The clerks maintain they should be exempt from the fee, as are 28 other state agencies, because they administer the trust fund themselves.
“This unreasonable charge threatens the basic functioning of our court system in Palm Beach County. My office’s share of this budget cut is $1.6 million. That’s another 140 positions on top of the 101 employees we lost last June. It won’t even matter how many judges there are to hear cases, because the documents they depend on will be backlogged in my office. Justice in Palm Beach County will come to a grinding halt,” Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock said.
Florida’s judges, led by the Florida Supreme Court, last year mounted a campaign in the legislature to take over the duties of clerks and the funds they collect. The resulting legislation transferred $41 million from the clerks’ budget to a Court Trust Fund. The court’s fund now has a $138 million surplus. None of these monies are available to fund clerk employees or operations.
Clerk Bock says the office won’t wait to find out what happens on February 22. A hiring freeze has been implemented and she is evaluating other means of further cutting costs. “Unfortunately,” Bock said, “this means we have to take a hard look at some of the customer conveniences we are able to offer.” Last June, the office was forced to close a Royal Palm Beach branch location because of staff cuts. Now, services in all branch locations will be affected by additional staff reductions.
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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