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Courts administrator to Legislature: Fund us, and we'll move along stalled foreclosures

A panel of lawmakers examined the scope of Florida's mortgage foreclosure crisis on Tuesday as the Legislature prepares to introduce legislation that would speed up the process.

State leaders have already discussed making Florida a non-judicial foreclosure state, an option some believe would resolve cases twice as fast as the judicial route. While that may be nice to consider for the future, the soonest that move could go into effect would likely be July 1, 2012.

The delay would not do a thing to relieve the strained body at the center of the crisis: the court system.

The courts are dealing with a backlog of 243,114 cases from 2010, and that's on top of a massive budget shortfall as a result of a slowdown in mortgage foreclosure filing fees, which mostly fund court operations.

"While we may be able to alleviate things in the future ... we've got a present problem that needs a present solution," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, during Tuesday's meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Last week, Chief Justice Charles Canady sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and state budget-writers asking for a temporary loan of $45.6 million so the courts can operate without reducing staff and services through March.

State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner told the panel the courts need their funding stabilized -- and then some -- before they can adequately tackle the backlog.

Simmons asked Goodner what the courts needed from the Legislature to speed cases along. Goodner said the courts will provide a formal plan in November, but the Legislature could start by providing the courts with money to revive its Foreclosure and Economic Recovery Initiative, which created special dockets for foreclosure cases and allowed circuits to temporarily hire judges and case managers to handle them.

The courts cleared 43.6 percent of its foreclosure backlog during the one-year program, she said.

Still, Simmons said after the meeting, the problem does not just lie with the courts. Lenders are not pushing ahead with their cases, he said.

Some other tidbits from the presentations:

Florida had the country's second-highest number of foreclosure filings in August 2011, as well as the third-highest percentage of "underwater" properties, according to a presentation by Amy Baker, director of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research.

Miami-Dade County had the highest percentage of loans in foreclosure at 18.88 percent. Central and South Florida counties are generally faring much worse in this regard than North Florida counties. Jefferson County has the lowest percentage of loans in foreclosure at 4.15 percent.