Referring to his father, Clerk of Court Tom Bexley told county commissioners on Monday, “he told me, when you need something from a man, you walk up on his porch, you knock on his door, you look him in the eye, and you talk to him. That’s what I’m doing today.”
After outlining the effects of covid-19 on his office–the $600,000 in lost revenue, the reduction from 62 jobs to 54, including four actual layoffs, the lingering uncertainties–he asked for a $250,000 emergency appropriation out of the county’s general fund budget, itself already strained and operating on low reserves.
“This does not reinstate the people that I’ve lost. This keeps me from cutting further,” Bexley told commissioners.
They appropriated the money, setting a precedent they may not be able to replicate as falling revenue is cascading over state and local governments. Bexley’s ask was an opening shot in what may be several seasons of contractions.
Many look at government and governmental entities as immune to the effects of the pandemic due to the reliance on ad-valorem property taxes to support us and our governmental operations,” Bexley said. While property taxes do provide that reliable source, he said, “I know you are painfully aware of the additional reliance on user fees such as sales tax, gas tax, hotel bed tax, to keep us solvent and productive. Well, our office is not immune to that either. We rely on additional sources.”
The clerk’s office as set up in Florida has innumerable responsibilities, supporting the judiciaries, the public and county governments, from accounting to financial reporting to payroll processing and auditing, court filings, deeds, real estate documents and so on. The office operates on two budgets–court side and non-court side, the latter fed by user fees and an annual appropriation from the county commission. The court-side budget is fed through traffic tickets, court filings and the like: that’s seen a 33 percent drop in revenue. “So when cuts have to be made to
“Being fiscally prudent can only take you so far, and time has caught up with us,” Bexley said, describing how several weeks ago he laid off “friends, colleagues and neighbors in order to keep this office solvent. Decades of institutional knowledge walked out of my office in one day. It was truly one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do. Bottom line though is this cannot continue.”
Come Oct. 1, it’s not certain that the office could carry on as is, so it’s considering closing some sections of the office that deals with the public to half days. “I think we’re all trying to stay hopeful and positive, knowing that the economy is going to recover,” Bexley said. “But when will that day arrive? This week, next week, next year.”
Four of the eight positions were reduced through retirements and leaving open positions unfilled. The other four entailed actual layoffs.
He asked for the one-time emergency appropriation beginning Oct. 1 to allow the office to continue its work as one of the ways to make ends meet. The eight positions eliminated saved around $200,000. The county’s $250,000 infusion would make up another portion of the gap. Bexley expects improving revenue to make up the remainder of the lost $600,000.
The clerk’s office is not eligible for federal Cares Act funding, nor may the county draw on that funding to make up its appropriation to the clerk. But the commission’s motion to provide the money includes a proviso that, shoul;d the law change, Cares Act money in the future would be used to make up the loss to the county. So the money is coming out of the county’s reserves.
“As you know we’re working desperately to get our reserves to the accepted minimum, clerk is aware of that and he has worked with us,” County Administrator Jerry cameron said, “this is exactly why you need reserves, because this is an unforeseen situation that the clerk could not have possibly planned for, nor could we.”
The commission’s vote to appropriate the money was unanimous.
“If things don’t get better, there could be more dire consequences later down the road, or if covid cases go up and we have another shut down of the courts, that’s such an unknown thing,” Bexley said.