State Politics

Court clerks give up budget clout in deal

The fight in Tallahassee between Florida’s court clerks and the state’s judges ended recently with a compromise.

The clerks get to keep their duties and avoid relinquishing power to the courts.

But they now need budget approval from lawmakers — matching the same process shared by other state offices, including court administration.

“I’m very happy we get to keep our duties,” Manatee County Clerk of Courts Chips Shore said Wednesday.

Circuit Judge Lee Haworth, the chief judge for the 12th Judicial Circuit, could not be reached for comment.

But other judges across the state applaud the compromise.

“In terms of accountability and transparency, I thought it was a great move by the Florida Legislature,” said Orange-Osceola Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry.

Orange Clerk of Court Lydia Gardner and other clerks will have to give up some budgetary control under the state legislation. Gardner said in an e-mail that she is disappointed that the bill passed but is more focused on the expected 19 percent budget cuts this fiscal year.

Legislators initially looked at transferring many of the clerks’ responsibilities to court administrators. That would have meant the clerks’ revenue would have gone to the court system instead of the state’s general-revenue fund.

The idea sponsored by Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, pitted clerks against judges — each vying for the millions of dollars in revenue.

Clerks called the judges’ move a power grab. Judges fought back by saying the clerks have enjoyed an easy budgetary ride with no accountability.

In 2003, the budgetary process changed when Florida moved to a statewide court system. Clerks funded their own agencies with money raised through court-related duties, including filing fees, service charges and other court fines.

An eight-member board of clerks was put in place to review and approve fellow clerks’ budgets.

Clerks, who are mandated by the state Constitution to be elected officials, initially were supposed to return a third of their money to Florida’s general-revenue fund. Later, that changed to clerks sending whatever surplus they had left.

Millions were sent back. Since 2004, Orange County returned $15 million.

But some clerks used revenue to pay for bonuses, dry-cleaning bills for clerk blazers and other items that raised concerns from outsiders.

Now, it will be up to lawmakers to give their approval.

“They set the priority, and they determine who gets funded and what amounts,” Perry said.

The Legislature also wants to look at the court system’s technology. Right now, the clerks have various case-management systems that don’t operate the same. The state plans to study the efficiency and budgets for both the clerks and the courts budgets.

Although the clerk duties stick, Shore said he is frustrated about his budget.

“They put a real burden on the clerks by reducing our budget as much as they have,” Shore said. “Looks like we’ll be cut back to our 2004-2005 budget — almost a million dollar reduction.”

The current budget for the 2008-2009 fiscal year is about $7.25 million, Shore said.

With the cut, Shore said clerk employees will be forced to take up potentially week-long furloughs. Other reductions include non paid holidays and salary decreases by 2 percent, he said.

— Natalie Neysa Alund contributed to this report.