WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - Courts statewide will have to furlough employees for a total of 14 days this month and next if Gov. Rick Scott does not approve a transfer of money by the end of the week to pay for court operations, Palm Beach County's chief judge said Tuesday.
In an e-mail to county judges, Chief Judge Peter Blanc previewed what he called the "worst-case scenario" - including furloughing all judges and other court system employees, and laying off a team of case managers and senior judges, called the Economic Recovery Team, created to manage the explosion in foreclosure cases.
When asked if the furloughs could result in courtroom closures, Blanc said he didn't know yet.
"If we can stay open in some manner for emergencies, we should," Blanc said. "I don't know what alternatives exist. We are in new territory here.
"Every year we are asked to do more with less. But this is the first time we have been asked to do something with nothing."
The courts need $72.3 million in emergency funds to keep operating through the June 30 end of the budget year. Scott has agreed to shift $14 million from court-related funds to pay for day-to-day operating expenses, but that will be enough to keep the courts functioning only through April 30.
The House and Senate have approved a transfer of money to tide the courts over until the new budget year begins July 1. But Scott has not yet approved the transfer.
"I don't understand why the governor has not agreed to this solution," Blanc said.
The courts will be out of money to pay salaries in May, he said, but the furloughs could begin this month to stagger days off so employees would not be out so many days in one month that they lose their health insurance. Approximately 54 judges, 54 judicial assistants and 100 court staffers could be affected.
Blanc emphasized that the budget shortfall is not because the courts spent too much money this budget year.
Rather, the shortage is caused by a sharp decline in foreclosure filing fees, which are used as a funding source for the court system.
"Unfortunately, even though we are hopeful that funding will be approved this week, we must prepare for the possibility that it will not," Blanc wrote to the judges.
Scott spokesman Lane Wright said Tuesday the governor has been working with State Courts Administrator Elisabeth Goodner to develop a plan to maintain the court system through June 30. At the time Scott approved April funding, he wrote to Goodner to seek more information on how the system was spending its money and managing caseloads, and Wright said those discussions continue.
"It is a priority of the governor to have a court system that is fully functioning and is funded," Wright said. "But the governor also has to protect taxpayers from any financial mismanagement."
Wright said he wasn't certain about when Scott may unveil his plan to direct money to the courts for May and June. But, he assured, "there is a plan being worked on."
Business lobbying groups Associated Industries of Florida and the Florida Retail Federation wrote to the governor Tuesday, urging him to keep courts open.
"We would not want to see disruption in court operations as a result of the unanticipated decline in mortgage foreclosure filings," the letter said. "Such disruption would not be good for the businesses we represent or helpful to our efforts to attract new businesses to our state."
Attorneys are pressing for a more secure funding mechanism for the courts. Two years ago, lawmakers changed the way the courts are funded by creating the State Courts Revenue Trust Fund. The fund is filled by court filing fees, which Goodner has described as a "very volatile source of revenue." About three-fourths of the state courts budget depends on the trust fund.
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