Court Clerk Gail Wadsworth Says Hail Mary Worked As Lawmakers Reverse Budget Cuts
FlaglerLive | August 16, 2012
A legislative panel approved an additional $29.5 million in funding for Florida’s clerks of court Thursday, largely undoing a budget cut that had already caused layoffs and delays at offices across the state since July 1.
In Flagler County, that means some 20 courthouse employees can go back to working full time after agreeing to furlough themselves down to 37.5 hours a week rather than see one of their own laid off. For the public, it means that some of the courthouse’s most critical public operations, such as the place where lawyers and people can file and look up cases, will resume normal business hours of 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., after those hours had been scaled back to 9 to 4.
The restored hours and pay will be effective Aug. 23. That’s a Thursday. So in Flagler, the restored hours will begin the following Monday, on Aug. 27.
“I’m ecstatic,” Flagler County Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth said. She had been among the clerks who’d lobbied lawmakers hard, and asked other politicians with influence to do likewise, to compel lawmakers to reverse the cut. She’d called it a Hail Mary. “The Hail Mary worked,” Wadsworth said this afternoon.
With minimal discussion today, the Legislative Budget Commission unanimously approved a budget amendment that would allow the clerks to spend funds from the Clerks of the Court Trust Fund.
The change mostly reverses a 7 percent cut lawmakers handed down during the legislative session earlier this year. Clerks had warned that the reduction would lead to layoffs and shorter office hours — something that would cause delays in court matters ranging from foreclosures to divorces to small claims.
The struggle to keep the court system funded as it should be is not over, Wadsworth said. “I think we’re going to have to work very hard with the Legislature to help us keep our budget so we can do the work we’re supposed to do,” she said. “You can do more with less for a long time, and then all of a sudden you have to do less with less. So I’m excited for the people who are getting their hours back and their money back, and I’m excited for the public who don’t have to stand in the hallway and wonder what we’re doing.”
Bob Inzer, clerk of court in Leon County, told the commission that some clerks might have already pushed ahead with cost savings in anticipation of the cuts for the current budget year, which began July 1, as indeed some had (Wadsworth being among them). But he said many of those decisions would likely be reversed now.
“There are a number of clerks that have gone through the layoff process and will be, assuming this passes and this budget authority will be instituted, will be rehiring those people or, if not available, will be rehiring additional people,” he said. “You’d probably find 67 different answers to that in 67 different counties.”
Karen Rushing, Sarasota County’s clerk of court, also said in a statement issued by the clerks’ organization that the restored funds would allow things to return to normal.
“Hours of operation had to be curtailed, limiting access to records by the courts and the public, as well as staff layoffs and other cost-saving decisions,” she said. “With the LBC’s vote, the clerks expect to return to normal hours of operation as soon as possible.”
The cuts were pushed in the last legislative session by House budget-writers, who didn’t object to Thursday’s change by the joint House-Senate panel. Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, noted after the meeting that the vote was a chance to get closer to the upper chamber’s recommendation that the clerks not take a cut in 2012.
“It wasn’t possible to get to that position during conference (budget negotiations),” he said.
For Wadsworth, Thursday’s news capped what she described as “a great week.” On Tuesday, she won her fourth straight election to remain as Flagler’s clerk of court until 2016.
–FlaglerLive and the News Service of Florida