NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA: Clerks Sitting and Waiting to See Who Controls Their Budget

Apr 14, 2009


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 13, 2009… A politically sensitive game of football has left county clerks’ offices waiting to see who will be in control of their budgets, how much money they will get and if they will have to lay off employees.

Lawmakers have been haggling over who should control the clerks’ budgets. Currently, clerks set their own budget out of court fees and are not subject to legislative oversight, something that some lawmakers say simply shouldn’t be.

Nobody else has that privilege in government, said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, who is sponsoring the House measure that would bring the clerks’ budget process under the purview of the Legislature.

The clerks have been lobbying hard against the measure, and it has caused some flame-ups in the Legislature. Senate President Jeff Atwater plucked the Senate version from the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee Wednesday and sent it directly to the Senate Ways and Means Committee after Chair Victor Crist, R-Tampa, and sponsor Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, sparred over the issue.

Bogdanoff’s bill passed the House Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee Monday, but still has three committee assignments remaining. Pruitt’s bill has passed the Senate Ways and Means Committee and could be taken up on the floor over the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, as the individual clerks are left to wait and see who will control their budgets, they are already dealing with tough times. According to the Florida Clerks and Comptrollers Association, about a third of clerks’ offices have had to furlough their employees because of a decrease in collections and others are looking at that for next year depending on what happens in the legislative session.

The biggest challenge is figuring out what’s going to be the budget requirements, said Hillsborough Clerk Joy Frank. The numbers have been moving around like a Ferris wheel.

Frank said her office has not yet had to lay off or furlough employees. Instead, her office is contributing fewer dollars to retirement plans and enacting salary reductions. The back and forth negotiations about the future, she said, have her office completely preoccupied.

My goal is not to make people unemployed, Frank said. We want to continue the excellent public service we have.

In Jefferson County, the situation has not been as good. Jefferson Clerk of Courts Kirk Reams did not have exact budget numbers immediately available, but said his office has collected significantly less this year. And that is not something he can control.

I can’t make a police officer write tickets or make a judge assess all the fees they can assess, Reams said.

The result has been furloughs. Since February, his 12 employees have taken off two Fridays per month, so they are always half-staffed on Friday. He has also left three positions open to cut back on cost. He said there likely won’t be layoffs, but he’s waiting to see what’s going to shake out of this legislative session.

For now, his office is left to scramble to make sure clients are served quickly and efficiently. Not always an easy task, Reams said, when a go-to person for a particular area is out for the day and nobody knows the answer to the question.

People don’t understand why that reason is they’re just not happy about it, Reams said.

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