Florida court clerks ‘grateful’ for anticipated $28.8M funding boost, warn of ongoing underfunding challenges

Florida court clerks ‘grateful’ for anticipated $28.8M funding boost, warn of ongoing underfunding challenges

Florida’s court clerks say they’re grateful lawmakers have agreed to redirect $28.8 million in fines and fees to support their daily operations, but they warn more will be needed to overcome a decade of underfunding.

“We are certainly very appreciative of the Legislature’s efforts to help deal with our budget challenges, and they are significant budget challenges,” said Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers Legislative Chair Stacy Butterfield.

Butterfield, the Polk County Court Clerk and Comptroller, spoke with the Bar News a day after the Senate Appropriations Committee voted 16-0 to approve SB 1470 by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast. Moments before the vote, the committee approved an amendment that made the bill identical to the House companion, HB 1077.

That means the House and Senate have agreed how much to redirect to the clerks for FY 2024-25, although the bills face final legislative approval.

The proposed legislation includes provisions that would create a driver license reinstatement pilot program for the Miami-Dade County, and another that would give clerks more flexibility to direct technology-related spending.

The proposal took a detour in the House earlier this month as the sponsor attempted to address a “glitch” in last year’s legislation.

Polk County Clerk of Court Stacy Butterfield

Stacy Butterfield

Lawmakers agreed last year to redirect $24 million in fines and fees to the clerks, but the bill failed to specify a $10 fee associated with a county court summons, Butterfield said.

That omission, and an increase in mandatory Florida Retirement System contributions resulted in the clerks receiving only a fraction of the intended increase, Volusia Court Clerk Laura Roth told the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on February 13.

“Indeed, insufficient funding is still impacting clerks’ ability to provide critical services to our court partners and our constituents,” Roth told the panel.

HB 1077 originally called for redirecting $39 million in fines and fees to the clerks, in part to make up for last-year’s glitch.

But in the subcommittee, Rep. Adam Botana, R-Bonita Springs, offered an amendment that reduced the redirect to just $8.1 million.

Botana said the amendment was necessary to convince House leaders to “re-refer” the bill to House Appropriations, where he would try to restore the funding.

The House later agreed to increase the redirect to $28.8 million.

Roth told the subcommittee that since 2008 she has been forced to cut 100 positions, consolidate divisions, and leave key leadership posts vacant.

Roth said she often works as a one-woman “human resources department,” and other managers are pitching in by attending court proceedings and providing counter service.

“We have come to the point where the daily fear is that there is nowhere left to cut,” she said.

Butterfield said the budget for Florida’s court clerks has increased just 1.3% in the past decade, while “justice partners” have seen their budgets rise 35.9% over the same period.

The disparity fuels high turnover, Butterfield said. She estimates that 80% of her trial clerks have been with her office five years or less.

“In Polk County, most of our judicial assistants, I would say 90% of them, are former clerk employees,” Butterfield said. “Now I have to start over, train another employee, and we can’t compete.”

Butterfield estimates that her staff processes 9,000 criminal and civil court documents on a daily basis.

Clerks have asked lawmakers for “redirects” for the past four years. At the same time, they watch for bills that would increase their responsibility without increasing their funding.

Florida law already requires court clerks to provide various services, free of charge, to domestic violence victims and the indigent.

This year, lawmakers want to require clerks to offer a free, wallet-sized “Hope Card,” that domestic violence victims could show police to verify that they have received a protective order.

HB 45 by lawyer/lawmakers Mike Gottlieb of Plantation and Traci Koster of Tampa is on the House calendar. A companion, SB 86 by Senate Democratic Leader Laruen Book of Hollywood, is on the Senate calendar. The bills cleared committees without a negative vote, and passage is all but assured.

Sponsors say the cards would prevent victims from having to constantly carry a stack of court documents.

Legislative staff initially estimated that each card would cost clerks $40 to produce.

But at the clerks’ urging, sponsors agreed to add a digital option and to pare back some requirements, including that the cards be laminated and delivered by certified mail.

Now that the estimated cost has dropped to $10, lawmakers are considering an amendment that would provide state funding, Butterfield said.

Clerks appreciate this year’s $28.8 million redirect, but more will be needed if clerks are going to continue to provide services in a timely fashion, Butterfield said.

“We’re certainly appreciative of the help. Would we like more? Absolutely,” Butterfield said. “Without the help, and the right resources to do the job, our constituents, their constituents, would be negatively impacted.”

Originally published at https://www.floridabar.org/the-florida-bar-news/florida-court-clerks-grateful-for-anticipated-28-8m-funding-boost-warn-of-ongoing-underfunding-challenges/

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