BARTOW, Fla. (July 10, 2020) – The Polk County Clerk of the Circuit Court & Comptroller was forced to implement layoffs and furloughs this week due to the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the office. Reduced hours of operation will also be implemented starting next week.
While many local government services and families have been impacted by COVID-19 its effect is particularly severe for Florida’s Clerks of Court because of the unique way the offices are funded under Florida law. Clerks have no statutory authority to create or maintain a reserve or emergency fund. Clerks are funded by fines, fees, service charges, and court costs—all of which have been greatly reduced during the pandemic.
“I deeply regret that I had to take these actions,” said Clerk Stacy Butterfield, Polk County Clerk of the Circuit Court & Comptroller. “While courthouses may have closed due to COVID-19, the majority of our operations have continued. Our team members have worked so hard in the face of many challenges, and it is gut-wrenching to now be at this point.”
“The impact on the public and courts will likely be significant as my office provides many critical services that may be delayed due to the lack of resources. With fewer people and reduced hours, it will take longer to receive assistance, and some services may be temporarily unavailable. This is counter to my commitment to provide trusted, quality services.”
The pandemic has created a major challenge for Clerks of the Court across the state of Florida requiring a $60 million reduction in operating funds. This resulted in a cut of $1.6 million to the Polk County Clerk’s court operations budget, all of which must be absorbed in the next three months, which is the 4th quarter of the fiscal year.
Since the start of the COVID-19, the office has made significant changes to operations to reduce costs. The challenge is that the lack of fines, fees, court costs, etc. that fund Clerks’ court budgets are so severe that extreme reductions are required to live within the available budget, and unfortunately, this may continue into the new budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
The Clerk’s office is using a variety of strategies to address this shortfall, including laying off 20 people, implementing furloughs for more than 200 employees, reassigning employees temporarily to other county offices needing assistance, freezing and eliminating 21 other positions, limiting hours of operation, and cutting all costs possible.
By law, the only way for Clerk of Court offices to avoid such cuts is through some type of emergency funding by the Governor or by the legislature, when members convene. Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, the statewide association of Clerks of the Circuit Court, is working closely with the Governor’s office on finding ways to help address this funding crisis.
“I take seriously my commitment to provide needed services to protect the public and to serve the courts,” Clerk Butterfield said. “While we have continued to provide essential services even during the initial stay at home orders, we have a backlog of court cases at the same time that we are losing a substantial portion of our funding. We are hopeful for an emergency solution to this issue, as a majority of our costs are related to salaries and benefits of our staff. The implementation of furloughs and layoffs, not only impacts our employees and their families, it also means when courts resume their full operations, I will not have a sufficient number of trained staff to support processing the backlog of cases.”
“I want those who rely on our services to understand the major dilemma we face. I deeply regret that, due to pandemic mitigation efforts statewide and the way our operations are funded, we must resort to extreme cost-reducing measures that will impact county residents.”
The Clerk’s Official Records Department (including marriage services and tax deed services), Comptroller, and Inspector General Offices in Bartow will remain open for normal business hours on the days that the court offices are furloughed. By law, these offices have different funding sources and are not included in the furloughs. Official Records includes marriage licenses, tax deeds, notice of commencement, recording services, and more.
Starting on Monday, July 13, court offices and branch locations will close at 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday to minimize overtime hours in court services. Additionally, court offices and branch locations will be closed for the day every Friday beginning Friday, July 17. These adjusted hours apply to court offices and branch locations. The Clerk’s Official Records Department, Comptroller, and Inspector General Offices in Bartow will maintain normal business hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.