On Jan. 19, during an event at Polk State College, Polk County Clerk of Courts Stacy M. Butterfield told state legislators that court systems statewide are in need of emergency funding.
“We are hurting,” Butterfield said.
Butterfield was asked to describe what she meant by that in more detail. What she said may come as a surprise.
The issue, she explained, is that many court services are funded by processing traffic tickets — and that income from processing traffic tickets has been steadily declining since 2009.
“Our budgets have fallen by $50 million dollars over the past eight years,” Butterfield said. “At the same time, our workload has intensified with a significant increase in additional duties, and COVID has further compounded this issue immensely.”
For example, it does not take long to process a traffic ticket and, generally speaking, people pay their fines in a timely manner to avoid losing their license.
Conversely, Butterfield said that around 30 to 40 percent of the work her staff does involves domestic violence injunctions, Baker Act cases and risk protection orders — and there are no fees associated with these cases.
“For those we get zero income, but there is a workload,” Butterfield said.
This isn't a new problem, she explained, but the pandemic has intensified its scale.
“In March, things started falling apart,” Butterfield said.
Facing a dramatic decrease in funding, Butterfield says she had to eliminate 41 positions and most overtime hours, but even that was not enough. From July 2020 through September 2020, Butterfield had to cut another million dollars out of her budget.
To save more money, most of her staff had to start working four days per week, instead of five, in late 2020.
“It's hard to get many people excited because it's not a very glamorous subject matter,” Butterfield said. “Most people just assume this (the courts system) works and there are no issues.”
When a person cannot afford a lawyer after an arrest, traffic ticket processing funds pay for things such as jury duty and processing criminal cases. Civil court cases generally pay for themselves.
There are several bills being debated in Tallahassee right now to address this problem. In addition to emergency funding, some bills propose allowing local clerks of court to create reserve bank accounts, so that during economic prosperity extra funds can be put in reserve for years when the economy is not in good shape.
Other bills propose creating dedicated state court funding for cases — especially cases associated with serving the indigent.
Butterfield said if emergency court funding is not passed during this legislative session, she will not have sufficient trained staff to process the backlog of cases associated with the pandemic.
“This deeply concerns me,” Butterfield said. “I take seriously my commitment to provide needed services to protect the public and serve the courts.
“While we have continued to provide essential services, even during the initial stay-at-home orders, we have a backlog of court cases at the same time that we are losing a substantial portion of our funding,” she continued. “This is completely counter to my commitment to provide trusted, quality services — yet, due to COVID-19 mitigation statewide and the way our offices are funded, we must resort to extreme cost-reducing measures.”