Florida: Another roadblock in the reform of guardianship

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Court Clerk Offices Face Layoffs, Furloughs

Samantha Joseph, Daily Business Review

Employees at South Florida state courts are dusting off their resumes as administrators grapple with layoffs, reduced hours and furloughs in the wake of multimillion-dollar budget cuts.

Fifty-seven staffers in the Palm Beach clerk’s office are out of work after a round of cuts, 17 got pink slips from the Broward clerk’s office, and more than a dozen more quit in the last two months, eliminating about 88 positions in the two counties.

In Broward, the clerk’s office also implemented a hiring freeze and required staff to take one unpaid furlough day every month through October.

The fallout was immediate. Fourteen additional employees resigned, for a total of 31 lost from the Broward staff of 850.

“A lot of people see a hiring freeze, they start looking elsewhere,” Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman said Wednesday. “We lost some good people too … all over the lot in every division.”

It’s too soon to tell how the cuts will affect operations, but a slowdown is likely. The clerk’s offices use electronic filings in current cases, but employees still verify documents and make redactions while working to digitize a backlog of paper files.

“I worry about things like the speedy-trial issue. People deserve to have their day in court as quickly as possible,” Forman said. “This cuts directly into the service we give to the people of Broward County.”

The cuts stem from a June decision by the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corp., which certifies the proposed budget for the state’s 67 clerks, to trim 5 percent from each clerk’s office budget after revenue shortfalls meant they could not achieve the $444 million budget projected for the fiscal year that started July 1.

That has meant just under $24 million in cuts statewide, according to Florida Clerks of Court executive director John Dew.

Clerks rely on a state trust fund that once was flush with court fees and costs generated by the foreclosure crisis, but legislators diverted a portion to cover other expenses. Clerks suggest the state took too much away, especially when foreclosures dwindled, leaving the statewide shortfall.

As a result, Broward needed to slash $2 million from its $40 million budget by Oct. 1. It cut daily operating hours July 20 to close to the public at 3:30 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. in a move likely to affect court filings across all divisions in the long run.

Clerks across Florida predict fewer customer-service windows, longer lines and slowdowns at courthouses if budget cuts outpace the rollout of programs to give residents broader electronic access to court documents.

As for future downsizing, Forman suggested more layoffs could be in store.

“I hope not, but we may have to,” he said.

Palm Beach County Clerk and Comptroller Sharon Bock’s website said her office must make budget cuts of $2.6 million by Sept. 30.

“Unfortunately, there appears to be no relief in the next fiscal year’s budget, and without legislative intervention we will likely have to institute deeper cuts,” she wrote.

Bock’s office cut 41 full-time and 16 part-time positions, instituted a hiring freeze and eliminated overtime because of the cuts. The Delray Beach and Palm Beach Gardens branch offices will be closed to the public every other Friday until Sept. 30.

Palm Beach County also delayed implementing some technology improvements, such as online viewing of court records.

There was no immediate comment on the effects in the Miami-Dade clerk’s office.