Florida's court clerks may get budget break

Associated PressJune 16, 2012 

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida lawmakers may give a last-minute budget break to the state's court clerks.

A new state budget that takes effect July 1 reduces the budget of court clerks by nearly $30 million. Court clerks have already announced that the cut is forcing them to lay off hundreds of employees, close branch offices and curtail office hours.

Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court R.B. "Chips" Shore announced Wednesday that starting July 2, the clerk's office will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Currently, the office is open to the public from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

But a legislative panel is being asked to allow court

clerks to spend additional money to cover the gap. The panel may meet later this month to consider the proposal.

A spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott said that the governor has already signed off on the proposal because the money would come from court fees and fines and not the state's main budget account.

County court clerks handle everything from court files, traffic tickets, and child support.

The budget for the clerks, however, is set by the Florida Legislature.

Many clerks have already announced their plans to deal with the budget cut. But clerks say that if lawmakers approve the budget fix they can at least start filling some positions.

"It gives you the opportunity to start ramping up again," said Sarasota County Clerk of the Court Karen Rushing.

Palm Beach County Clerk of the Court Sharon Bock said the extra money would prompt her to reconsider a decision to shorten the hours her office is open to the public.

She pared back the hours to ensure she is not paying overtime to have employees process last-minute court filings.

For years, there has been a tug of war over the budget of the court clerks. Florida lawmakers have controlled the overall budget of the clerks since 2009, even though the clerks are elected officials.

When budget negotiations finally ended this spring the amount of tax dollars going to the clerks was cut.

Lawmakers made thecuts even though clerks warned the decision would force them to concentrate more on criminal cases than civil cases because most criminal cases have strict deadlines.

Some of the types of cases that could be impacted by the budget cuts include foreclosure cases, landlord tenant cases and even some of the processing involved in child support cases.

The Legislative Budget Commission is tentatively scheduled to meet on June 26 where it would give clerks the ability to spend up to$29.5 million that couldbe generated by fees and fines.

Legislators this year passed two bills that were designed to help the clerks collect money owed to the court.

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