POLL Closing of Immokalee offices could leave thousands struggling yearly to get to court

Should Immokalee court services close to save taxpayer money?

See the results »

View previous polls »

Are you an Immokalee resident who will be on probation after June 1? Are you concerned about driving to Naples? Contact Naples Daily News reporter Matt Clark by calling (239) 213-6042 or sending an e-mail to mclark@naplesnews.com.

— For 20 years, Immokalee residents have had a bicycle ride, walk or short drive to get to court.

Starting June 1, they won’t.

Court administrators in Southwest Florida have decided to suspend criminal traffic and misdemeanor court and probation services in Immokalee, affecting thousands of citizens a year.

They’re the victims of dwindling court revenues and a Collier County budget policy that looks unfavorably toward increasing out-of-pocket costs for services the law doesn’t require the county to pay for.

It won’t just be more difficult for accused criminals to appear in court or for probationers to fulfill their obligations; it also will make it more difficult for the justice system to work in Immokalee, said the man who oversees Collier’s courts, Senior Deputy Court Administrator Mark Middlebrook.

“This is public safety. It’s cutting an aspect of the public safety formula,” he said. “We go hand-in-hand with the Sheriff’s Office and the fire department.”

If the Collier Clerk of Courts Office follows the Southwest Florida judicial circuit’s lead, thousands more will be affected whenever they need to file or request documents, pay traffic tickets, obtain passports or marriage licenses or utilize any of the office’s other services.

The clerk’s office currently is providing these services while it reviews whether to continue doing so in Immokalee.

Collier Clerk of Courts Dwight Brock said Friday he is leaning toward keeping the office open.

“I’ve had a lot of people contacting me, imploring me to keep that office open,” Brock said. “I haven’t had anyone tell me to close it.”

Effects

Instead of a relatively short distance in town, the area’s residents needing those services on the chopping block will be traveling to the courthouse in East Naples, located more than 40 miles away.

It’s more than an hour’s drive by car, but longer for those using the Collier Area Transit bus system.

Penny Phillippi, executive director of the Immokalee Community Redevelopment Agency, said many of the area’s residents don’t own a car.

“We really do need to keep it in Immokalee,” Phillippi said. “It’s just going to create a hardship.”

Immokalee-area residents echoed Phillippi's thoughts, especially when it came to the clerk’s services.

“If they close it, it would be a big problem,” Clifford Francois, 25, said. “It would be chaos for some people.”

“It would be more difficult for everyone who doesn’t have a car,” Immokalee resident Sarah Carrillo said.

Middlebrook said the probation office in Immokalee has had an average case load of 142 cases a month so far this year. Statistics on criminal traffic and misdemeanor cases were unobtainable this past week after the announcement was made about the cutback of services.

Mary Frances Valdez, who has been working in the clerk’s satellite office for the past three years, said she sees between 90 and 150 customers daily.

“The public needs this office to be open,” Valdez said. “I’m not saying it to keep my job. Yes, I love this job. But for the Immokalee residents.”

Causes

Both the clerk’s review and the 20th Judicial Circuit’s suspension of Immokalee services are related to the county’s budget policy for the next fiscal year.

“The numbers are down. The income is down, and the county has made it clear they are cutting our budget,” Middlebrook said. “So, we are cutting that budget.”

Commissioners adopted a policy this year of having a budget based on the same property tax rate of the previous year presented to them for discussions and debate. As an estimated 10 percent drop in property values is expected, adopting such a budget will lead to a drop in revenue.

Under this “millage-neutral” scenario, each county division would need an average 5 percent cut. Specific cuts will be determined during summer commission workshops when budget priorities are set.

Currently, funding for the circuit’s operations in Collier are roughly divided in half between the county and the state, but much of the courts’ cost to the county gets offset by its own revenues from fees, fines and surcharges.

Under the current budget, the Collier courts were expected to spend $4.6 million, generate $2.8 million, and charge the county for the rest, $1.8 million.

In other words, three-tenths of a percent of the county’s $634.8 million operating budget was taxpayers’ cost for the courts to provide the services they do now. As a comparison, operating the County Commission was budgeted at $1 million.

But here’s the rub: The court system’s revenues are declining.

Document filing fees, court fees, and noncriminal traffic ticket surcharges are down 30 percent since 2005, and probation fees have declined 19 percent in the past three years.

Though the county isn’t required by law to pay for all of what it’s currently funding, Middlebrook points out that Lee County provides a whole percent of its budget to the courts in Lee, seventh-tenths of a percent more than Collier.

“I am sure you agree the amount of work and service provided by the court to our citizens is done so at a minimal cost to the county,” he said.

In a statement, Collier government spokesman John Torre noted that the decision to suspend operations in Immokalee was the five-county 20th Judicial Circuit’s alone.

“That decision is entirely up to the court administration and not the county commissioners,” Torre said.

The court system and county manager’s office are expected to provide a “State of the Courts” presentation to commissioners in the near future, Torre said.

Naples Daily News staff writer Tracy X. Miguel contributed to this report.

© 2010 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

  • Discuss
  • Print

Related Stories

Related Links

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Share your thoughts

Comments are the sole responsibility of the person posting them. You agree not to post comments that are off topic, defamatory, obscene, abusive, threatening or an invasion of privacy. Violators may be banned. Click here for our full user agreement.

Comments can be shared on Facebook and Yahoo!. Add both options by connecting your profiles.

Features