Miami-Dade Courts Closing Public Counters, Cutting Staff Amid Huge Budget Shortfall

Planning on getting a marriage license, paying a traffic ticket in person, or filing a motion for the eviction of your tenants? That's about to become much more difficult in Miami-Dade County.

Beginning September 8, statewide funding shortfalls for court systems mean the Miami-Dade Clerk of Courts office will no longer staff front counters at eight major courthouses throughout the county. Residents from Hialeah to Coral Gables to Miami Beach will have to schlep to the downtown Miami courthouse — and wait in lines that promise to be truly apocalyptic — to get their official business done.

And to top it off, the downtown courthouse will have shorter hours at its public service counters. Instead of a 9 a.m.-to-4 p.m. workday, the main civil court will reduce hours by an hour and a half, opening at 9:30 a.m. and closing at 3 p.m.

So who's to blame for this debacle? Tallahassee, of course.

"Our budget has been either cut or held flat over the last eight years, and with next year's projected cuts, we will have lost approximately 25 percent of our workforce over just the last three fiscal years," Miami-Dade Clerk Harvey Ruvin says in a recent letter sent to court staff.

The trouble traces to 2009. Before that year, the revenue that clerks collected from court fees went straight to fund their budgets, with any surplus going to the state's general revenue stream, which the Florida Legislature could tap as it saw fit. However, with the huge spike of foreclosure filings in 2009 after the housing crisis, the Legislature changed the system and required clerks' offices to send their budgets straight to Tallahassee for approval, along with any fees they collected; the state would first collect part of each fee for general revenue and then let the leftovers flow to the clerks' budgets.

That system worked well when foreclosure cases were flooding courthouses with fees. But these cases have dramatically dropped in recent years, and revenue streams simply can't keep up with the state's new system. The state's Revenue Estimating Conference on July 31 predicted nearly $12.6 million less in statewide revenue this year.

The financial trauma not only will hurt Miamians hoping to file their paperwork without losing a whole day in line, but also might cost courtroom clerks such as Jared Crawford their jobs. He says this year the office is looking to lay off 70 courtroom clerks as well as some supervisory positions — and that's after roughly 100 positions were cut last year. Workers have largely been left in the dark on layoffs, not knowing whether positions will be cut based on time of service or other criteria.

Crawford has heard that Ruvin is reaching out to city commissioners in hopes they can help alleviate the financial burden placed on the courts. (Ruvin didn't respond to requests for comment.) To Crawford, that move doesn't make much sense because the services they will be able to provide will be critically limited compared to the needs of the people.

"I would think the city commissioners would be more invested because it effects their constituency," Crawford says.

For the rest of the Clerk of Court's employees, now it's simply a waiting game.

"It's chaotic as far as the workers," Crawford says. "We're trying to do our jobs, but we're worrying about whether we'll have a job at the end of the month."

Here's the full list of courthouses that will lose front-counter workers September 8: the Hialeah District Court, Martin Luther King Office, North Dade Justice Center, Miami Beach District Court, Coral Gables District Court, South Dade Justice Center, and the Sweetwater Sub-Office.

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