Clerks of Court study ways to become self-supporting January 1, 2001 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Clerks of Court study ways to become self-supporting Senior Editor Florida’s clerks of court collect plenty of money. The problem when it comes to financing the clerks’ operations supporting the court system is they don’t keep much of it.That’s one of the findings of a study commissioned by the Florida Association of Court Clerks, in response to a legislative mandate to find ways clerks’ functions can become self-supporting without relying on funds from various counties.The report, prepared by the association’s Article V Task Force, also contains a proposed fee schedule for various court services. But Beth Allman, director of communications for the association, said that doesn’t mean filing fees and other charges will rise. Any final decision on that, she emphasized, rests with the legislature.The report is part of the legislature’s grappling with a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998 that mandates the state pick up much of the court-related funding now paid for by counties. The legislature has set a schedule to phase in that process beginning with the courts and state attorneys and public defenders, and concluding with the court clerks.All the changes must be completed by July 1, 2004. Last year the legislature passed a bill setting out the schedule and requiring the report from the clerks. The amendment requires that counties pay for facilities, the state pick up all court, state attorney, public defender, jury, conflict attorney and other costs, and that clerks become either self-supporting or get state money instead of relying on county funds.“We try to answer the statutory requirements of what do the clerks do in court-related venues,” Allman said. “What services should be continued, what does that cost, and how can it be funded?”They are simple questions. Allman noted state law now caps civil filing fees, with a couple of exceptions, at $200, although the charges vary from county to county. But of that amount, clerks get only $41, she said. The rest goes to a variety of state and county funds, ranging from law libraries, facilities maintenance, legal aid programs, mediation programs and a small amount to the state’s general revenues.Overall, the report found for the 1998-99 fiscal year, court clerks took in a total of $479.9 million from various fees and charges, but clerks kept only $78 million of that. Meanwhile, their court-related operations cost $305.2 million, meaning only 26 percent of those costs were covered by clerks’ revenues.“The study also determined that the costs are highly dependent on factors outside the clerks’ control, ranging from overhead and salaries varying from one region of the state to another, the cost of multiple courthouse facilities and the staffing thereof, to the types of cases processed,” the report said. “The study documents that of the tasks or services performed by the clerk, two-thirds are those where there is no fee. Additionally, there are areas outside the clerk’s jurisdiction where fees are typically waived, or not collected at all, such as in cases where the person files as an indigent, or where costs are summarily waived by the court, or in criminal cases where no filing fee is assessed.”The study analyzed in depth 13 counties, from the smallest to the largest, and attempted to define a fee structure that would make the clerks’ offices self-sufficient without county funds. Allman stressed the fees are only tentative and may be changed, and that the legislature has the final say. She also noted that while the legislature may approve earmarking more of the various fees and charges for the clerks, it could also reduce the overall fee by eliminating the portion going to the state or counties. Many of the fees have not been changed for 15 years, she added.The preliminary proposal had the clerk’s share of the civil filing fee going from $41 to $88. Registrations of foreign judgments would go from $40 to $90. For dissolutions of marriage, the clerks’ portion would go from $41 to $90, as would product liability, eminent domain, child support and a variety of other cases. Appeals from county court would go from $75 to $150, while appeals from circuit court would go from $50 to $100.Traffic cases would see significant increases. The report proposed that clerks get 5 percent of traffic fines, compared with the 0.5 percent they get now. Fees, however, would not change for pedestrian, nonmoving traffic and moving traffic violations. A new $150 charge for appealing a traffic case would be imposed.In criminal cases, the association proposed slightly raising filing fees for capital and other felony cases and imposing $45 filing fees for misdemeanor and criminal traffic cases. For probate cases, the association proposed slightly more than doubling fees kept by the clerks for filing a trust, clerks would get $90 instead of $40, and $44 instead of $20 for filing an estate.One set of probate proposals has drawn the opposition of the Bar’s Elder Law Section, which has received Board of Governors approval to oppose basing guardianship and estate audit fees on a percentage of the account. Currently clerks get a flat fee of $10 to $150 depending on the size of the guardianship or trust. The report proposed giving them up to three percent, with the amount capped at $2,000 for accounts up to $100,000, $3,500 for those up to $500,000 and a flat $5,000 for those over $500,000.The report noted that overall, court clerks are involved in 11 programs supporting court activities, and that to support those programs, clerks perform 33 “services,” 148 “activities” and 721 “tasks.” Four of those programs civil, criminal, probate and traffic court functions are statutorily required.The other seven, which include family mediation, victim and witness education, teen court, foster care, child support enforcement review, pro se assistance and guardian ad litem, are not uniformly performed by clerks (some are performed locally by other public agencies) and cost only $1.6 million for clerks statewide.The report recommended that the four statutorily required programs be continued, as well as related support functions. The cost of those four programs for 1998-99 was estimated at $305.2 million, including $112.6 for criminal, $104.3 million for civil, $71.8 million for traffic and $16.5 million for probate. Of the $78 million collected, $51.5 million came from filing fees, service charges and other sources from civil cases; $14.5 million came from traffic cases; $6.5 million came from criminal filings and $5.4 million came from probate. Looking at how that money was spent, the report found that $207 million went for salaries and benefits, $68 million for indirect and overhead costs, $24 million for operations and $5.6 million for equipment and other capital expenses.