Miami Herald Editorial: Disaster averted, but county clerks need more state funding

Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin understands the art of the deal and averted a budget emergency that would have suddenly closed seven satellite offices next week. County residents, and the 70 staffers who were spared being laid off, should be grateful.

As Florida lawmakers prepare to meet in committees this month to set the agenda for the upcoming legislative session, which starts in January, they should see the budget emergency as a huge neon sign that they should revisit, and correct, their funding cuts to clerks’ offices across the state. Otherwise they will severely curtail where residents can pay a traffic ticket, get a marriage license or file court documents.

The Miami-Dade delegation, especially, should make it a priority to ensure equitable funding for the clerk’s office. State allocations have been restructured and reduced by the Legislature, while the need for staff and additional services have increased in this growing state — even as many services have moved online.

The clerk of courts works under the radar, but is integral to everyday life in this community. It provides support to the court system and services the judiciary, the legal community, the County Commission and, of course, the public.

Ruvin told the Editorial Board he began to sound the alarm with the county after July 31, when the last chance to get additional state funding disappeared.

But county officials said they had no extra money, and some commissioners were resolute that the clerk’s budget problems were the state’s responsibility to fix, not the county’s. However, the clerk’s office has two budgets, one from the state and one from the county.

In Miami-Dade, the shortfall meant the satellite offices and service counters from Miami Beach to the South Dade Justice Center were in danger of closing and their staffs laid off. Customers would be forced to seek services in downtown Miami. In traffic-challenged Miami-Dade, that’s a nonstarter and it’s not government at its finest.

Ruvin said county dollars were his only hope — and he, along with finance gurus and members of AFSCME Local 199 union joined forces to save the jobs — with the help of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

The $2 million unearthed is a sliver of the $20 million allocated by the county to the clerk’s office, but unused because of austerity measures not reflected in the budget. The money would have been returned to the county’s coffers. Regardless, Ruvin and Gimenez describe it as a temporary solution until March.

But Ruvin says the stopgap measure gives him the time to come up with an action plan to appeal to the Miami-Dade delegation for help. He and Gimenez hope to unite stakeholders to lobby the state Legislature to find a “long-lasting financial solution” during the session.

If the legislative path fails, Ruvin said he is mulling whether to file a lawsuit against the state, just as Broward County’s Clerk of Courts has done.

Across the state, county clerks have complained about the state’s underfunding. As in Miami-Dade, they have responded by cutting employees, reducing office hours or satellite counters.

The state’s 67 clerks take in more than $1 billion for the state; they have never asked for more than $450 million collectively for their yearly budget, yet they get back less than half of that for operations. The clerks’ offices are coming through for the state. Why is the Legislature crippling their ability to continue to do so?