Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Clay Grapples with Challenge to Comply with Court Costs Deal; Failure to Keep Up with Spending Could Cost County $3 Million a Year

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Clay Grapples with Challenge to Comply with Court Costs Deal; Failure to Keep Up with Spending Could Cost County $3 Million a Year

Article excerpt

Byline: J. TAYLOR RUSHING

TALLAHASSEE -- To the Legislature, Senate Bill 2962 was a way to ensure counties hold up their end of a deal on court costs. To Clay County, it's a $3 million problem.

Clay is one of many Florida counties struggling with the bill passed in 2004 that is just now hitting home. As an addendum to Chapter 29.008(4) of the state statutes, it orders sales tax revenues withheld from counties that don't keep up state-mandated spending increases on courts.

Clay appears to be safe for the coming year, officials say, which eases some concerns since the county's next fiscal-year budget is already expected to drop from $193 million to $181 million. The county also is grappling with the costs of a new $20 million courthouse. But future years are still a concern for Clay, which collects about $3 million a year in state sales tax revenue.

"Complying with the statute and the funding arrangement is difficult if not impossible," Clay County Finance Director Donnie Moore said. "I understand they wanted to maintain levels of court funding. But if you budget a certain amount of money and don't spend it, the statute says they'll grab your revenue-sharing. That's like punishing a county for not spending enough. It's a major glitch."

The arguing is the latest twist in a yearslong shoving contest between the state and counties over the costs of maintaining, securing and staffing Florida's courts. The 1998 Article V revision shifted court funding responsibilities from counties to the state, but it also prompted the state to take a stronger oversight role in how that money is spent. The effect was that some costs were redefined as the responsibility of the counties, and requirements such as 29.008(4) were later added as guarantees.

Legislators such as Rep. Holly Benson, R-Pensacola, say the requirement was the best idea kicked around in Tallahassee to hold counties accountable. …

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