Fees and costs hiked to offset some court cuts

first_img June 1, 2008 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Fees and costs hiked to offset some court cuts Senior EditorIt has dozens of pages, multiple charts at the end, and enough of the standard strike-through language and underlined new verbiage to cross the average reader’s eyes.But what might look like just another dry legislative enactment — titled CS/SB 1790 — will impact many if not most lawyers in Florida as well as have long-range impacts on the funding of the court system.Among other things, the bill, pending before Gov. Charlie Crist as this News went to press, raises dozens of filing fees and court costs, which in turn helped make up a shortfall in state funding for the judicial branch and for the Department of Corrections.It also made several other changes, notably switching the payment of jurors and witnesses from the courts to the clerks of courts (who got a resultant increase in their fees they are allowed to keep to offset the extra expense).Perhaps the most notable fee increases, according to Fred Baggett, the Tallahassee private attorney who is also general counsel for the Florida Association of Court Clerks, is an increase in the civil filing fee from $250 to $295, and an increase in the filing fee to evict a tenant from $70 to $295. In addition, defendants who include a counterclaim in their response will have to pay another $295 filing fee, as will those making third-party pleadings.From the perspective of the courts — and state attorneys and public defenders — the most notable aspect of the bill is the money it raises. According to figures from the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, CS/SB 1790 is projected to raise $121.1 million that will go to the state’s general revenue fund and another $14.9 million will go to various trust funds.Of the new general revenue funds, about $75 million was allocated to the courts, state attorneys, public defenders, and related agencies.For the $14.9 million in trust funds, $8 million was set aside for the courts’ mediation programs. Under the existing court fee structure, $1 from each civil suit filing fee was set aside for mediation, which beginning July 1 with the new fee system, $16 of each $295 filing fee will be sent to the mediation trust fund.A new mandatory cost of prosecution — $50 for every misdemeanor case and $100 for every felony case — is expected to raise $3.6 million, with 100 percent of that going to a trust fund for state attorneys. (Prosecutors can seek and judges can grant a higher amount.) There’s a similar defense cost to be imposed on behalf of public defenders, but they get 25 percent of that in a trust fund, with the remainder going to the general revenue fund. The bill also raises the $40 application fee for those seeking a public defender to $50, and that is expected to raise another $1.5 million in trust funds for public defenders.There is also a new $50 application fee for indigent parents who seek an appointed attorney in a dependency action. That fee is expected to raise around $800,000, which is going into a trust fund for the new Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsels.Baggett said the genesis of CS/SB 1790 came actually last year in a required report from the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation, an entity which is charged with overseeing how court fees and costs are collected and distributed. That report noted that an increase in court fees could be justified and that would raise $62 million. In what was expected to be a good budget year, that report received no action in the legislature.But this year, after two rounds of budget cuts to the 2007–08 budget and with even less money available for the 2008-09 budget, lawmakers saw the report as a way to get money for the badly strained court system, related agencies, and even for corrections. After tweaking the various fees and costs, the bill is expected to raise the combined $136 million in general revenues and trust funds.As welcome as the new monies are, CS/SB 1790 did not solve the critical budget problems for the courts, state attorneys, public defenders, and others.According to the committee figures, the new revenues will not quite replace the loss of other general revenue funds to the courts and related agencies. Without the bill, the court system had faced a $17.9 million reduction in general revenues. After the bill passed, that was reduced to $6.9 million, or 1.6 percent less than it ended with in the 2007-08 fiscal year. (In the two rounds of budget cuts in 2007-08, the courts had $24 million in general revenues cut.) Including the two rounds of budget cuts made during that year, court officials say that amounts to about 6.7 percent less from recurring general revenue and trust funds for 2008-09 than they began the 2007-08 year with, with the expected result of cutting court employees by 250 positions. While some of those are vacant, court officials have said layoffs are inevitable. (See story on Page 1 of this News. )Likewise for state attorneys, the committee figures show that prior to CS/SB 1790, they were facing a 4.3 percent cut, or $14.4 million. With the bill, that is reduced to 0.6 percent. Public defenders were looking at a $7.2 million cut in general revenues, or 4.2 percent, and that’s been shrunk to $1.2 million or 0.6 percent with CS/SB 1790. (State attorneys and public defenders have expressed some skepticism on whether they will get all the money, particularly in trust funds, projected from the bill. See story in the May 15 Bar News. )To generate new funds, CS/SB 1790 raised fees and costs on a wide variety of court-related activities, including recording official documents, various filing fees, probate-related fees, costs related to criminal prosecutions, fines and costs for driving or boating while intoxicated. A chart following this story details the changes, effective July 1.More than raise court fees and costs, the bill also:• Transferred from the courts to court clerks the responsibility for paying juror and witnesses, along with giving them additional fiscal authority to raise the money to pay those bills.• Raised the salaries of the five Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel from $80,000 to $100,000. Under state law, they could not hire any assistants at a higher salary than they earned, and the $80,000 limit made it difficult to hire assistants to handle death penalty cases, where the attorneys must meet high standards of experience and training.• Allowed the CCCRCs to hire part-time assistants who also maintain a private criminal practice. Under current law, public defenders can hire part-time defenders, usually in rural counties, but those attorneys are prohibited from having other private criminal defense work.• Provided that county court judges serving on temporary assignment as circuit judges will no longer receive circuit judge pay• Reduced the number of judges on the Third District Court of Appeal by one, which had been recommended by the Supreme Court.(None of the 61 new circuit and county court judgeships certified as needed this year by the Supreme Court was approved.) Fees and costs hiked to offset some court cutslast_img

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