Editorials

A Tallahassee wrong that should be righted; counties still bear unfair juvenile detention costs

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks during legislative session last April. On Tuesday, he filed a bill to stop the Department of Juvenile Justice prepayment system, with every county simply paying its share of the prior year's cost starting in fiscal year 2016-17.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks during legislative session last April. On Tuesday, he filed a bill to stop the Department of Juvenile Justice prepayment system, with every county simply paying its share of the prior year's cost starting in fiscal year 2016-17. AP

An issue that has bedeviled dozens of counties across Florida returns to the spotlight thanks to a Clearwater senator who has filed legislation that would fix a shamefully inequitable state mandate.

In 2004, the Legislature forced 38 counties to pay a portion of the costs of incarcerating juveniles before adjudication. Before that bill became law, the state paid all those costs. But as is common practice in Tallahassee, lawmakers look for ways to pass down costs in order to beef up the state budget for other projects and programs.

Sitting in a Herald Editorial Board meeting on Wednesday to discuss legislative priorities compiled by the Florida Association of Counties, Cragin Mosteller, FAC's communications director and policy advisor, checked her smartphone and announced she had encouraging breaking news. This year, for the first time in recent history, neither FAC nor Manatee County listed the Department of Juvenile Justice overbilling issue as a legislative priority after losing out on reasonable legislation.

Even though a host of counties won a lawsuit seeking redress from an onerous billing system, the state merely adopted a new policy to short-circuit the ruling. The 2013 ruling determined DJJ was overcharging counties, and the judge invalidated the agency's rule that forced them to pay 75 percent of detention costs when they should have been only responsible for 32 percent. Gov. Rick Scott decided to require counties to cover 57 percent of those costs, but receive no back payments for the overcharges. The counties lobbied for a 50-50 split back then but gained no ground. Since the Legislature did not address the issue during the 2014 session, DJJ adopted the governor's proposal.

The billing system is actually even worse than that fundamental unfairness. Current state law requires counties to prepay an estimated amount. Then at the end of the fiscal year after actual costs were calculated, each county would receive an adjustment -- either a reimbursement for overpaying or another bill for underpayment. The problem here, though, is inappropriate reimbursements. Refunds could range from $50 million to $200 million statewide, Mosteller noted.

This ludicrous system only serves to fill state coffers at the beginning of the year. As Mosteller told the Editorial Board and several Herald reporters, this billing system never results in accurate payments from counties and can lock up that money for years. That denies counties vital revenue for local programs. The system, she said, "is set up to fail. ... It's not based on actual costs. ... So it resulted in lots and lots of lawsuits."

During the 2015 session, the Legislature passed a "clawback" bill to thwart county demands for revenue sharing refunds if DJJ determined a county had not paid its unfair share of juvenile detention costs. Cheers to Manatee County commissioners for digging in their heels in September and voting to continue paying the 32 percent rate a federal court ruled valid. This hard stance gives Manatee legal standing should there be yet another legal challenge in this long-running dispute. But the state is withholding revenue sharing from the county to recoup the difference.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has a fair vision in his newly filed legislation. His bill eliminates the prepayment system with counties paying its correct share of the previous year's costs at the beginning of the next fiscal year. Plus, Latvala's bill employs more fairness in the county-state split, putting it at 50-50.

The legislation does not enjoy a House companion yet. We greatly encourage Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, and Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, to sponsor an identical measure.

This billing system is clearly broken. But legislators have been loathe to fix it. The question is why. We'd like answers to that in the House and Senate. Their constituents back home should demand answers. Millions of their tax dollars are flowing to Tallahassee and not returning as they should be.

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