Circuit court faces funding shortfall, case delays

Two years after the Legislature hitched state court funding to civil filing fees, a drop in foreclosure cases has placed local courts and their staffs in jeopardy.

Court administrators for the 20th Judicial Circuit say they lack operating funds for the final two months of fiscal year 2010-11, the result of a dramatic decline in new foreclosure cases.

Without intervention from Gov. Rick Scott, circuit courts may be unable to afford payroll for their employees, including judges, judicial assistants and support staff, in May and June. Even with additional funding, unpaid furloughs may be required, administrators say.

Furloughs, in turn, may result in greater case delays in the circuit’s five courts in Lee, Collier, Hendry, Charlotte and Glades counties.

“It’s up in the air right now,” Circuit Chief Judge Keith Cary said. “We don’t know, but we do expect to receive some additional funding. We just don’t know how much.”

Current funding is scheduled to last until the end of April, he said, leaving May and June in doubt. Legislators are now crafting the fiscal year 2011-12 budget, which will fund the court system anew in July.

The current $72.3 million funding shortfall is blamed on a statewide drop in foreclosure filings as banks postpone new cases, a response to increased criticism of their handling of existing foreclosures.

The Lee Circuit Court reported 315 new foreclosure cases in February, compared to 1,394 in February 2010. In Collier, 161 foreclosures were filed last December, compared to 601 in December 2010.

Fewer foreclosures translates to less money for the state court system. In 2009, legislators linked the system’s primary funding mechanism to revenue from civil case filing fees. Foreclosures, the most common civil case in the wake of the housing bust, turned into the driving force behind the state court system.

In fiscal year 2010-11, filing fees from foreclosures were expected to account for some $294 million of the $462 million budgeted for the court system, or roughly 64 percent. The money pays for judges, their assistants and staff such as interpreters, court reporters and mediators.

Once revenue projections fell, Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady imposed a hiring freeze among the courts and cut back on spending.

Tuesday, Scott’s administration informed Canady that the governor would shift $14 million marked for mediation arbitration and court education to pay for day-to-day expenses.

The money is believed to be enough to keep the courts functioning through the end of April. Scott is still considering a request for another $28.5 million.

Collier Circuit court administrator Mark Middlebrook said the current shortfall is being felt in Naples.

“We have ceased buying anything unless it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.

Collier was budgeted to receive $3.75 million in state court money for fiscal year 2010-11, the majority of it earmarked for the salaries and benefits of 40 employees, Middlebrook said.

Beyond the court’s 14 judges and their judicial assistants, state funding pays for two family law magistrates, three magistrate staff, one interpreter, a mediator, three electronic court reporters, Middlebrook himself and a secretary.

Middlebrook emphasized that the court did not overspend, but that revenue projections never materialized.

“We’re short on the funding side,” he said. “We’re not asking for a bigger appropriation.”

Because Florida law requires the continued operation of criminal courts, any furloughs or cuts would likely be felt on the civil side, Cary said. Divorces, contract disputes or lawsuits could potentially be delayed as a result.

“The person that’s going to feel it is the small business person or the family that is trying to move on with their lives and we can’t even get to (their case),” Middlebrook said.

Cary said the circuit can only wait and see what happens.

“I’ve been a judge for 23 years,” he said. “I’ve never seen it this bad.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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