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Lawmakers Rethink Court System Budget

The deepening backlog in Florida courts prompted some lawmakers Wednesday to propose repealing a measure approved just last spring that dramatically changed budgeting across the court system.

The state’s 67 court clerks have laid-off 1,250 of 9,600 employees – 13 percent of the workforce - in recent months, while implementing salary freezes and furloughs for most remaining workers, Sarasota County Court Clerk Karen Rushing told the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The move comes after clerks absorbed $123 million in budget cuts over the past eight months that has clashed with a flood of foreclosure filings that have effectively stalled the system.

The Legislature approved $1.1 billion in new fees last spring – with much of them designed to ease budget woes in the courts. But the cash flow doesn’t do much for clerks and also has been stymied by new legislation (CS/SB 2108) that revised the method for setting clerks’ budgets.

The new system allows dollars to flow to clerks based on the previous quarter’s service needs – a method Leon County Clerk Bob Inzer called unworkable.

Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, was among several lawmakers who questioned whether at least portions of the new law should be repealed. Clerks have been under a political microscope as the housing boom and bust led to a dramatic increase in fee collections that outstripped funding for judges.

Lawmakers sought to rebalance the dollars – but may have fueled workforce reductions at a time when the demand on clerks’ offices is peaking. Thirty-one counties have closed branch offices operated by clerks in a cost-cutting move, while other frontline staff have lost jobs, officials said.

“It’s just shifted the burden everywhere,” Rushing said. “Instead of calling clerks’ offices, people are now calling the courts, the judge, the county commission. We’ve got a problem.”

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, conceded that the fix approved by lawmakers in the spring may not be working.

“”Sometimes, things that you think are put to bed don’t stay asleep,” Richter said.

Meanwhile, a separate presentation, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey said Florida was on track to top the 369,000 property foreclosures that clogged the court system last year.

Through August, 266,00 foreclosures were already filed – with as many as 425,000 foreclosure actions possible by year’s end.

Bailey was chair of the Supreme Court’s task force on foreclosures which concluded that Florida’s housing crash was creating a “horrifying” backlog in courts, particularly those in South Florida.

Bailey told the committee that 75 percent of civil court dockets in Miami-Dade for the past two years represent foreclosure cases – with little relief in sight.

“There is a lot of agreement on what the problem is, but there’s not a lot of agreement on the solutions,” Bailey conceded.

Three judicial circuits, the 11th Circuit in Miami-Dade County, the 1st Circuit in the Pensacola area, and the 19th on the Treasure Coast, have formed mediation programs over the past year, with the high court panel recommending that such efforts be made mandatory statewide.

The system is aimed at trying to bring together troubled borrowers and lenders early in the foreclosure process – devising alternate mortgage payments aimed at keeping people in their homes, and giving banks and mortgage companies a reasonable chance of maintaining the delinquent loans.

Bailey said mediation has helped reduce foreclosures – and blunt the prospect of a protracted court fight. Bailey conceded judges “don’t have the people to do it,” and don’t expect the state to come up with any money to help mediation programs foster.

“The state doesn’t have any money, either,” Bailey said. “We’re not asking for anything other than encouraging mediation statewide.”

The task force report, released in August, found that although foreclosure filings in many of the state's largest counties leveled off in recent months, Florida still had the "third highest mortgage delinquency rate, the worst foreclosure inventory, and the most foreclosure starts in the nation."

Other steps the task force is proposing include creating a statewide foreclosure Web site to assist homeowners and forming new procedures to accelerate cases through the court system.

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