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Judges, clerks recommend solutions for funding problems

A workgroup of a dozen county clerks and judges published recommendations on Friday for stabilizing unreliable revenue sources for the courts and clerks systems.

One not very new idea for the courts: move judges' salaries into the state's general revenue fund and out of what has proven a volatile trust fund.

"It’s a constitutional guarantee that the state makes to the people of the state," said Lisa Goodner, state courts administrator.

The Supreme Court certifies the need for judges for the Legislature, which gets to decide the number of judges to prescribe. The report argues "it would be inappropriate to tie that process to the revenue in a trust fund."

The courts have struggled to support their budgets as mortgage foreclosure filings decline. Chief Justice Charles Canady has frequently asked for mult-million dollar loan transfers to fund basic operations due to the shortfall. About 83 percent of the entire courts system is funded by fees collected in the trial courts.

According to the workgroup's report, clerks and courts could share a new trust fund funded by fines and fees to be administered each month by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. The "core court system" trust fund would then be divvied into the clerks' trust fund and the start courts' trust fund to pay for operations.

Other services guaranteed by the Constitution should be taken care of by general revenue and not the trust fund, the report advises, including recording court proceedings, court interpreters, appellate court building leases and the Judicial Qualifications Commission.

The workgroup does not encourage increasing filing fees and fines. Florida's fees are already among the most expensive in the country, the report notes, and kicking those up even higher may prevent people from seeking court services. Florida's initial civil filing fee is the nation's second highest.

The workgroup also wants a reserve fund equal to one-twelfth of each system's annual appropriation on hand to utilize at the beginning of the fiscal year.

The clerks are funded by fines, fees, court costs and service charges that are sent to the state and remitted back to them. The report notes that this set-up creates three funding problems: there's not enough money to fund the budget; there's not enough money at the beginning of the fiscal year; and the monthly earnings are unreliable for their consistent expenditures.

The report was distributed to Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, House Speaker Dean Cannon, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Gov. Rick Scott.

The Senate Budget Committee will hear a presentation on the recommendations on Tuesday.

The workgroup consisted of the following people:

John Laurent, Circuit Court Judge, Tenth Judicial Circuit

Karen Rushing, Clerk of Court, Sarasota County

Sharon Bock, Clerk of Court, Palm Beach County

Joseph Farina, Circuit Court Judge, Eleventh Judicial Circuit

Bob Inzer, Clerk of Court, Leon County

Neil Kelly, Clerk of Court, Lake County

Mark Mahon, Circuit Court Judge, Fourth Judicial Circuit

Wayne Miller, County Court Judge, Monroe County

Stevan Northcutt, Appellate Judge, Second District Court of Appeal

Richard Orfinger, Appellate Judge, Fifth District Court of Appeal

Tim Smith, Clerk of Court, Putnam County

Richard Weiss, Clerk of Court, Polk County