State Politics

Clerks: Budget cuts could have dire consequences

MANATEE — Florida clerks of circuit courts are warning that a proposed $23 million slash in their state funding will make it difficult to do their jobs, keep the public waiting much longer and hit hard through the judicial system.

The latest cuts were included in a budget amendment to Senate Bill 2700 by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

“You may recall that clerks across the state were cut by almost $90 million last year and had to lay off almost 1,300 people,” Chips Shore, Manatee County clerk of circuit court, wrote in a letter to the Bradenton Herald. “More than 30 branch offices were closed and wait times have been climbing. In my office alone, I have had to let over 20 people go, our lines have increased at our counters, we have fallen behind in our filing and getting records to courts. Last year’s cuts overwhelmingly slowed down our ability to serve the public.”

Karen Rushing, Sarasota clerk of circuit court and legislative chair for all of the clerks in the state, said she has been communicating with the legislators who are involved.

“A cut of $23 million on top of an 18 percent cut last year would create an inability to carry out our statutory mandates,” Rushing said Monday. “Sen. Mike Bennett and others at the local level have voiced concern about this amendment.”

Clerks said they were blind-sided by the latest cut.

“When the bill went through the Judiciary Committee it did not have this amendment,” Rushing said.

The amendment was approved Thursday.

The cuts would have a ripple effect, extending to courtrooms and law enforcement.

The state has added judges to handle the mountain of foreclosure filings, but has cut the budget of the clerk, who handles the filings, Shore said.

Figures provided by Shore show that he had to cut his budget by about $900,000 from last year. This year’s $6.1 million budget is roughly the same as the budget in 2005, when the workload was substantially less, Shore said.

About 6,000 foreclosures in Manatee County are anticipated this year, compared to about 600 in 2005, Shore said.

Walt Smith, court administrator for the 12th Judicial Circuit, said Alexander’s amendment, made “late in the game,” will “create a big problem for the courts.”

“We are all running on less resources at the time we are being inundated by more cases,” Smith said.

Cutting the budget slows the clerk’s response time, including communication with the jails and getting warrants out on time, Shore said.

Sheriff Brad Steube wondered aloud Monday on where the budget cuts might stop.

“I am just as disturbed as everyone else,” Steube said. “We’re all struggling to provide services to our community.”

The sheriff’s current budget was cut $4.5 million, and he has 42 open positions.

Manatee County, which has deeply cut its budget in recent years, is looking at having to cut another $15 million for fiscal 2010-2011.

“In Manatee County, we offer e-filing, online payments of traffic tickets and child support payments and are the first county in the state to provide online access to court documents to the general public, free of charge. We are as lean as we can get,” Shore wrote to the Herald.

“The impact of this will be felt by the judiciary, the public defender, the state attorney and our other judicial partners including the sheriff, not to mention the impact this will have on access to the courts by the public. Filings will not be processed timely; we will not be able to answer the phones promptly; and we will have to reduce the number of hours our office is open,” he said.

Shore encouraged the public to contact members of the Manatee County legislative delegation and express their concerns about the proposed cuts.

Calls to Bennett, R-Bradenton, and Alexander for comment were not immediately returned Monday.

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