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|The Florida Legislature is failing Florida’s court clerks
I was delighted to speak recently at the State of the Courts Luncheon for the Trial and Litigation Section of the Hillsborough County Bar Association. It gave me a chance to explain the progress we are making in our operations and the lack of support we are receiving from the state Legislature.
Here are excerpts of my remarks:
It’s great to be here and to see so many judges present because we are all in this together.
I want to talk primarily about two things: our work getting court records online and our budget challenges.
We call our online record system HOVER, for Hillsborough Online Viewing of Electronic Records.
If you are a lawyer you have access to HOVER right now. All you have to do is go to hillsclerk.com and register and you will get access to online records in cases in which you are the attorney of record. We have 1,288 attorneys who have registered already and they have viewed more than 51,888 documents online.
We are on track to provide public online access by June 30.
The public will have access to redacted records only. We will redact records as requested or all of the records in cases deemed high profile. As you know there are more than two dozen categories of confidential information the Florida Supreme Court says must be redacted before a record is released. Some clerks are using scanning software to redact but confidential information has been inadvertently released. So in addition to the scanning software, we will have a staff reviewing documents to increase safeguards.
We are doing all of this under an agreement with the Florida Supreme Court. The court sets the pace and approves our procedures. We had 328,044 new court cases filed in Hillsborough last year. With that volume we have had to work very diligently to make this system work.
We also have reorganized our customer service. We have a centralized phone center now and you can pay traffic tickets by phone with a credit card. Or at any Amscot in the county. Or you can pay them online at hillsclerk.com (the fastest way). But some people can’t do that or need help so we created a centralized Customer Service Center on the first floor of the Edgecomb Courthouse, replacing five offices in four buildings downtown.
We are cross-training employees to increase efficiency and closely tracking performance to improve accountability. We can tell who is performing well and who is not and we hold them accountable.
We also have a bank of computers at the Customer Service Center for the public to use.
Of course, we continue to offer special access to members of the Bar. If you or your staff ever have questions, call 813-307-4395 and someone will get back to you within 24 hours. We also have a special kiosk set up at the Customer Service Center your staff can use.
We are working closely with Sheriff Gee to transfer Probation Services from the Salvation Army. We provided space next to the Customer Service Center and funding for new software to track cases more efficiently. People sentenced to probation can leave the courtroom and begin the process right downstairs. We want to keep costs low so people are not trapped in a cycle of poverty. Turning this work over to a for-profit company as the county planned would have been a mistake.
A team of Stetson Law students went through Florida statutes and built a data base of more than 1,000 duties we are required to do. They also determined which duties we no longer have to perform.
All of these changes are being done in the face of declining revenues. Our court budgets are based on money we collect through fines, fees and costs but we keep only a small portion of what we collect. Last year we collected $202.6 million but 85 percent of that goes somewhere else. The bottom line is that the Legislature has been using the court system as a giant cash register to avoid raising taxes. So they increase fines and fees and divert the money to the general fund.
It’s a shell game.
Last year, $11 million was diverted to the general fund. That’s $11 million we could have used to shorten wait times for our customers or improve technology to increase efficiency.
The clerks have been dealing with budget cuts every year since 2008. We are facing a $1 million cut in our current budget, which we will absorb through prudent management. We are also facing a $1 million or more cut in next year’s budget. This situation cannot continue without affecting our customers, who already have to endure longer wait times than they deserve. And my employees are facing the prospect of higher health insurance rates, which will offset the small merit raises we give.
Gov. Scott in his recent budget message said he wants Florida’s court clerks to live within their means. We would be happy to do that if he would stop taking money from the court system. It reminds me of his plan to increase school funding without raising taxes, but actually raising local property taxes.
This game of legislative three card monte has gone on long enough. I’m fed up with it and I hope you are too. This is money generated right here in Hillsborough County and ought to stay here to support our court system.
My staff estimates there are more than 100 different general revenue funds where we send money, plus 42 trust funds that support various programs, many of which have nothing to do with the courts.
As I said at the beginning, we are all in this together: The clerks, the judges, the public defender and prosecutors, and you, the attorneys who access our court system. I hope you can express to our lawmakers the importance of fully funding our operations.
|Hillsborough Bar Association holds fun event for worthy cause
The Hillsborough Bar Association’s annual 5K Pro Bono River Run and 13th Annual Judicial Pig Roast is always a fun and rewarding event and this year’s was no exception.
Hundreds of people descended on the grounds of the Chester H. Ferguson Law Center on Saturday, March 5. The weather was glorious and the mood was upbeat. The event is designed to generate pro bono hours among members of the bar for members of the community who cannot afford legal services.
It is a great cause and I was honored to start the 5K run with a blast from an air horn. Once the runners were on their way, I joined some of my staff at a booth we set up to promote awareness of our new online court record system, dubbed HOVER, for Hillsborough Online Viewing of Electronic Records.
All members of the Florida Bar can register to use HOVER to view court records in cases in which they are attorney of record. Training sessions for attorneys, paralegals and legal assistants were held in September. A total of 1,227 people have registered to use the system.
By June 30 the public will be able to use the system to view redacted court records. We are being very careful in our procedures so that confidential information, such as social security numbers, is removed before such records are released. The Florida Supreme Court has more than 22 categories of information that must be redacted from court records before they can be viewed by the public. Read more about our efforts in this Tampa Tribune report.
It was wonderful to see so many familiar faces at the event, which drew a record 370 runners who generated pledges of pro bono hours for members of our community.
“The focus is to encourage participants to pledge and perform pro bono hours,” said Hillsborough Bar Association Executive Director John Kynes. “For people in need in our community that’s really what it’s all about.”
More than 2,800 pro bono hours were pledged. Congratulations to the Hillsborough Bar Association for this worthy cause.
|Setting the Pace for Local Governments across Florida
I was pleased to welcome more than 120 people from around Florida last Friday to the first Florida Government User Group meeting, where they learned new ways to turn mountains of paper into electronic files.
I am proud to say that my office is a leader in Florida in using technology to increase efficiency and improve public access to government documents. The big turnout for Friday’s conference underscores the new paths we have created in this area. We were happy to share our experience with governments large and small.
Most of the discussion focused on my staff’s inventive applications using OnBase, a document management system made by Hyland Software. As I told the participants at Friday’s conference, “OnBase is just a tool. Like a carpenter’s saw, the trick is how you use it.” I’m fortunate to have some master carpenters who have created some amazing applications using OnBase.
When I was elected Clerk of the Court 11 years ago, I set out to create a paperless office. While that goal is still a work in progress, we have made significant strides. We started almost seven years ago with accounts payable and it has just mushroomed from there. Now we have moved so many different parts of our work to electronic documents it’s mind boggling.
You may not know this but we pay all the bills for Hillsborough County Government. That’s 50,000 electric bills a year, among other things. Try keeping track of all that paper! Well that’s what we used to do. Now it’s all electronic.
We have 50,000 outside vendors we work with, and keeping track of all those is a lot easier thanks to the applications my staff has devised. We process 21,000 deeds every year, for example. Those were once all filed on paper and now they are all electronic. We still have the old paper deeds, of course, and they are among the millions and millions of documents we store at a two-story warehouse in Brandon.
That’s on top of 18.8 million electronic official records.
As word has spread about what we are doing with electronic documents, we have had one government agency after another ask us to help. The state attorney, the public defender, fire rescue—the list goes on. Just recently, the Children’s Board asked our help to convert its paper forms to electronic. Today, paper forms that once filled 105 boxes have been scanned, indexed and are now available at the push of a button.
A lot has changed since I took office, but one thing I noted on my 100th day in office still holds true: I am excited about the future and the endless potential that this office holds.
|Tears of Joy
If you have ever been inside the County Center – that big pink building on the corner of Kennedy and Pierce – you might have noticed a tall, exuberant woman with striking hair she describes as “awesome blonde.” That woman, Bridget Givens, works as the head custodian of the County Center. She has worked for Hillsborough County for more than 17 years, and it is our good fortune in the Clerk’s Office to have Bridget assigned to our floor.
Bridget and I have known one another for many years, and we have a special bond. It is not easy to do her work, but you would never know that from her. She always has a smile and a cheerful greeting for all of us.
Last Thursday, Bridget had several “Happy Birthday” balloons on her portable work station. No, she said, her birthday was not that day – it was Friday. But her daughter was getting married on Friday, and she was taking the day off. In fact, Bridget said that they were going to our Official Records Department at 419 Pierce Street, for the ceremony. When I found out about that, I offered to perform the ceremony in my office. As we were finalizing the arrangements, Bridget started to cry.
With the help of my staff, we had a festive table, with a birthday cake for Bridget, a rose for her and one for the bride, her daughter, Machelle’.
On Friday morning, Bridget arrived, with the couple and some close family members. It was my pleasure to perform the ceremony marrying Machelle’ and her new husband, Taijuan Mullins. As for Bridget, there were a few more tears – truly tears of joy.
If you asked me what the perks were of this position, I would have to count a day like last Friday. We don’t always have happy customers, especially when they are paying traffic tickets, but when you perform a wedding ceremony for two young people in love, with one the daughter of a beloved county employee, what could be better?
|The Hub and the Spokes
When people think of the Clerk’s Office, they usually think of it in terms of a specific need – either Court-related or connected to Official Records. What they don’t see is the big picture – what we do every day in terms of services that have a direct impact on you and your life.
As Clerk, when I look at all we do, I see this office as the hub of the wheel– clearly at the center – of essential services, as well as the spokes, too, in many instances. For example, in our Court-related duties, we handle matters ranging from filing new cases – civil and criminal – to a multitude of traffic issues. We are in charge of Jury Services, and in the past fiscal year, we summoned 107,496 jurors to Court.
We collected a total of $373,252,124 in fines, fees and service charges for Courts and Official Records– but unfortunately, we can only claim less than ten per cent of that to run our office.
Now that documents can be filed online, the Clerk’s Office processed 1,567,986 documents this past fiscal year.
If you need to process your passport application, we handle that, too, and we processed 9,795 applications this past fiscal year. We issued 10,828 marriage licenses, and processed 508,429 official documents in total.
I am also the Comptroller for Hillsborough County, and in that capacity, I am responsible for managing and investing in Hillsborough County’s portfolio of $1,634,192,744. The Clerk’s Office audited or paid bills for Hillsborough County totaling 165,524 invoices amounting to $1,662,573,160.
The Clerk’s Office is responsive to people who have questions and call us, which amounted to 503,923 calls for the last fiscal year, breaking down to 458,535 for the Courts and 45,388 for Official Records. We serve walk-in customers, and last year, handled 293,661 in Courts and 45,355 in Official Records.
You may not know that the Clerk’s Office is also in charge of the Value Adjustment Board, where you, as a property owner, can appeal if you feel that your property is not valued properly. In the past fiscal year, the Value Adjustment Board, known as VAB, processed 2,284 petitions from homeowners.
We want the wheels to keep on turning in the Clerk’s Office, but we cannot do that without sufficient funding. All we are asking here and in Clerks' Offices throughout Florida is to keep more of the fines and fees we collect, instead of sending them to Tallahassee to be spent elsewhere.
Please make your voices heard before January 12, when the Legislative Session begins in Tallahassee. Call or email State Rep. Dan Raulerson, the current head of the Hillsborough Delegation, at (813) 757-9110 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or State Sen. Tom Lee, Chairman of the State Senate Appropriations Committee, at (813) 653-7061 or email@example.com.
I want to thank you for your support and only hope that our voices will be heard.
|Happy 150th Anniversary to Beulah Baptist!
This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the 150th Anniversary Banquet for Beulah Baptist Institutional Church.
At the 150th Celebration - The Clerk with City Councilmen Harry Cohen and Charlie Miranda; Tampa Fire Rescue Chief Thomas Forward and his wife, Cynthia; and Rev. Thomas Scott.
This is a church steeped in historical significance. It was organized in 1865 shortly after President Abraham Lincoln delivered his Emancipation Proclamation.
Before Beulah Baptist opened its doors, parishioners attended the First Baptist Church on Kennedy Boulevard, near the University of Tampa. Beulah Baptist offered an alternative. When it was founded, its primary purpose was to teach free men and women how to read and write. Through the years, it has remained true to its goals to invest in children and the community, as well as reach out to people in need.
When I attend special occasions of this nature, it makes me all the more aware of the treasures we have in Hillsborough County. Good people like Rev. Dr. W. James Favorite, the Pastor of Beulah Baptist, truly do lead the way.
Congratulations to Rev. Favorite and the members of Beulah Baptist for their long and caring service to our community.
|A Visit to Bealsville
This week marks a very important birthday for a very special community. The community of Bealsville will celebrate its 150th anniversary this coming weekend, and the festivities are open to everyone. There will be planned activities from Thursday through Sunday, culminating with a community outdoor faith service Sunday at 10:30 am at the Bealsville Recreation Center.
Bealsville was founded by a group of slaves in 1865, following the Civil War. Against the odds, they established their farms in rural Hillsborough County, near Plant City. They developed Bealsville as the kind of place you would want to live if you valued education, family and community.
Pat Frank at Mt. Olive African Methodist Episcopal Church
They established Glover School, now on the National Register of Historic Places, and they developed their farms. They valued education and prided themselves on many of their residents becoming community leaders of Hillsborough County.
Unfortunately, even 150 years later, race still is an issue, but the good news is that there still is a Bealsville.
If you have some time this weekend, pay Bealsville a visit. If you go there, talk to some of the citizens and let them tell you their personal stories.
Festivities include tours of the historic school and cemeteries, entertainment and a Civil War encampment. For a complete schedule, call (813) 737-1352 or go to Bealsville 150 Year Celebration.
Also, you may want to view an excellent documentary on Bealsville’s history produced by Hillsborough County Television.
|Delano Stewart’s 50th Retirement Celebration Held at Allen Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church June 7, 2015
Del Stewart has a lot of firsts behind his name.
Delano S. Stewart, Attorney at Law
He has distinguished himself as a lawyer in the state and in his community by being the first African American to be:
- First assistant public defender
- First member of the board of the Hillsborough County Bar Association
- First member of the Rough Riders
- Founder of the George Edgecomb Bar Association
- Founder of the Tampa organization of Black Affairs
- First member of the Hillsborough County Young Democrats
- Recipient of numerous awards for his representation of the down trodden
I first was introduced to Delano through his father, Garland Stewart, the first African American Assistant Superintendent of Schools when we were integrating Hillsborough County schools and I was a school board member. Delano is all that his father was: intelligent, dedicated, tireless and truthful. These qualities have earned him the respect of all citizens, regardless of ethnicity or economic status.
Reverend Dr. David W. Green, Sr. Pastor
After 50 years, Delano is going to retire; however, he has promised to continue with his convictions to help those in need of justice, to mentor the young to be leaders, and to train others to carry on his goal of equality for all.
We salute you Del, and wish you good health and many years ahead to accomplish your missions.
|A Day to Remember
Memorial Day is special to me because it reminds me of my husband, Richard, who served during World War II as an infantryman in the artillery in Germany and saw active duty. While it used to be observed on May 30, it is now observed officially on the last Monday in May, so we all enjoyed a three-day holiday.
I was fortunate to visit the beautiful National World War II Memorial during a recent visit to Washington, D.C. during the Memorial Day weekend. The Memorial sits on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It honors all 16 million people who served as part of the American armed forces, including more than 400,000 who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
I know that many of you have private memories just as I do, ones we hold close to us. My husband was at Dachau, one of the notorious German concentration camps, when it was liberated. I remember him saying how he would never forget what he saw.
And I think that’s the important lesson of Memorial Day. We must never forget how fragile freedom really is – and remember to cherish the freedom we enjoy in this country. It is not to be taken for granted.
|Legal Assistance for You
I attended a meeting, of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice on Friday, May 15. One major concern of this Commission is that so many Floridians cannot afford legal representation. The statistics are truly frightening. According to the Commission, “a large number of moderate income people are effectively excluded economically from access to justice because they cannot afford to hire a lawyer and they do not qualify for legal aid.”
Yet many people find themselves facing situations which require legal assistance. According to a recent survey, 74 percent of Americans dealt with one or more legal life events in the past 12 months.
As the Clerk of the Circuit Court, my office is limited in what we can do legally to assist customers. We cannot give any legal advice and are explicitly barred by the Florida Supreme Court from doing so.
But we have taken some important steps to make it easier for you to navigate the Courts. One major step is the consolidation of our Civil Court Customer Service into one central location – Room 101 of the Edgecomb Courthouse, located behind the main entry point. Where you previously had to visit three separate locations for your Civil Court business, you can now go to this one area for Circuit, County Civil and Family Law requests, including access to Court records. You may also pay for copies of pleadings in Room 101.