The Palm Beach County Commission agreed Tuesday to explore ways to help Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock cover a $2.6 million shortfall as a result of funding cuts by the state to all county clerk offices, rather than lay off employees and shorten courthouse hours.
Bock announced on July 1 that her office has been forced to absorb the $2.6 million budget cut due to a funding cut from the state.
The state cut is about 6 percent, but because it comes in the last quarter of the 2014-15 fiscal year, the impact is over 30 percent, Bock said.
“Because the clerk’s office is the gateway to the court system, the timing of today’s report is critical, as the courts and the citizens of Palm Beach County will be directly impacted by these budget cuts, and it will have an immediate impact of increasing waiting times and delays in our court system,” she said.
Shannon Ramsey-Chessman, Bock’s chief financial officer, said the issue is not caused by spending in the clerk’s office. In fact, Bock’s office collects more than its fair share of revenue. “We have a distribution issue with the way the statute is set up,” Ramsey-Chessman said.
She explained that county clerk offices statewide follow a revenue funding model where they keep about 15 percent of the court and service fees they collect, and 73 percent of the revenue goes to the state’s general revenue fund.
“Last year, that total was $280 million, and our office was only allowed to retain approximately 15 percent,” Ramsey-Chessman said.
Clerks have had a continuation budget since 2010, meaning that their income has remained the same until this year, when it decreased. They have also been asked to absorb additional costs, including Florida Retirement System funding and health insurance costs for employees.
“The budgets that you see today are now lower than what clerks had over a decade ago, despite any of the cost increases,” Ramsey-Chessman said, adding that the population has also increased.
“In 2010, clerks were told to absorb the costs of jurors, meals, lodging and witness payments,” she said. “All of those costs come out of our budget.”
In 2012, the clerks were mandated to implement the redaction of sensitive information for court records, and in 2013, the offices were told to allow civil filings on the web, and criminal filings in 2014, and most recently, requiring that court records be posted online.
“All of that requires intervention from staff in our office,” Ramsey-Chessman said. “We’ve implemented all of these seamlessly with no additional funding, until the most recent set of cuts.”
Because the clerk’s office spends more than 90 percent of its funding on personnel, it will have to reduce its staff.
Bock said that all processing of applications for employment to her office have been rescinded, as well as openings by attrition.
“This impacts trials, it impacts docketing, and it also impacts the implementation of any of our court programs,” she said, adding that all other processes of her offices will be delayed, including court cases. “There are going to be impacts here.”
Commissioner Steve Abrams suggested that the county get its state lobbying team involved in the issue.
“You’ve posed this problem that is going to have some severe implications, particularly with our justice administration,” he said.
Abrams added that the Florida Bar Association should be up in arms about the issue.
“They have a powerful voice, and I wonder if they are not joining with you to fight cuts,” he said.
Ramsey-Chessman said the cut this year to clerks will be $23 million, but the cut next year is projected at $40 million. She added that the offices are not allowed to maintain a reserve fund to absorb such shortfalls.
Bock added that the state is only constitutionally required to fund the county seat, which does not include the north and south county courthouses, and that Glades residents must travel 50 miles for court hearings.
Commissioner Mary Lou Berger, having worked in the clerk’s office, said she understood and admired Bock’s response to challenges from the state.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said it might be appropriate to direct staff to work with the clerk’s office to include some of the issues in its legislative agenda, pointing out that committee week in Tallahassee starts in about two months.
“It’s a timely conversation,” she said. “At least from a county standpoint, we don’t want it to turn into an unfunded mandate upon the county commission to try to take up these costs.”
ABOVE: Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller Sharon Bock.