Chief judges want to control court tech dollars

first_img Chief judges want to control court tech dollars Jan Pudlow Senior Editor It may be only $2 collected from each court filing fee, but it’s piling up into a high-stakes debate about who should have control of millions of dollars for an integrated court technology system.Right now, the counties have control of the money, with little direction from the legislature on how to spend it for court technology needs in circuits that cross county lines.When the Article V Technology Board met in Tallahassee September 23, Second Circuit Chief Judge Charlie Francis temporarily suspended his role as chair of the group to argue passionately that the chief judge of each circuit should take control of one integrated court computer system that serves everyone’s needs.“It is the chief judge who has the responsibility of how cases are processed. That’s the bottom line,” Francis said. “As the chief judge, as the constitution says, they look to me, and the buck stops here as to whether a case makes it through the system or not.”Judge Francis spoke against a motion made by 15th Judicial Circuit Public Defender Carey Haughwout that proposed money generated by the $2 filing fee be administered at the circuit level by a joint committee of the state attorney, public defender, and chief judge.Fifth Circuit State Attorney Brad King said he had concerns about “the idea of the chief judge being the sole decision-maker where the money is spent, even after consultation” with the others.“and large, the court’s role should be a neutral one and not taking an active role in the management of cases,” King said.But Judge Francis stressed that he, as chief judge, has a constitutional charge to supervise the court system, and that should include technology that enables one division of the courts to talk to another, as well as receive and share information from a variety of state agencies needed to make decisions in cases.Francis said he has “no problem with some kind of review process if judges are not handling things right.” But he believes the chief judge needs to be in charge of setting court system priorities.“Right now, in most civil cases, there is no record of what happens other than the court taking notes in chambers. Clerks don’t have that ability. We depend on judges’ handwritten notes to know what’s going on in 60 percent of our court system,” Judge Francis said with frustration. “My job is to make sure the whole court system is working correctly.”The committee tabled the discussion until the next meeting, October 21, when they hope to have hard numbers on just how much the $2 fee is generating and how it is being spent. Francis said he does not think the $2 fee is sufficient to cover court technology costs.Statewide, Florida spent a total of $1.35 billion on all technology in 2003-04.“That’s a chunk of money to be spent on technology and the legislature has legitimate concerns if it is being spent properly,” Francis told committee members. “Our job is to recommend a funding model or models to the legislature.”It was clear from public testimony that confusion is swirling about the $2 fee enacted by the legislature last year, as part of a combo of county/state/and fee-generated funding for the courts.The legislature passed a $4 hike in filing fees on official records, of which $2 is set aside for the clerks. But the other half goes to fund the public defenders, state attorneys, and the court.“The legislature did not give enough clear direction to the counties as to how to utilize that fund,” said State Court Technology Officer Mike Love. “They set it aside and said, ‘Clerk, you capture it. You then pass it to the board of county commissioners.’ The board of county commissioners, with little direction thereafter, is to use their discretion in supporting the technology requirements of the state court system.”Exactly how much money the $2 fee is generating was unclear, but likely it is not enough.“I know that three years ago, when this was being contemplated, each dollar would generate $26 million. So there’s at least $100 million bucks we’re talking about. The clerk gets half of it and the other players get to split the other half,” Love said.“The reason you see there’s discontent is because there is not enough money in the $2.”Some of that discontent was detailed by those who testified before the board:• Third Circuit Chief Judge Julian Collins, of Lake City, said: “We need a circuit-wide system, not seven separate counties. We need centralized control over our $2 portion of the $4 surcharge” in order to have “reliable funding and an opportunity for centralized planning. Some counties are so small they won’t generate enough funds for technology.”• Jon Lin, court technology officer for the Fifth Judicial Circuit, handles five counties from his office in Ocala and he wishes he could prepare one circuit-wide budget. “I don’t have the ability to actually move equipment where I need it, when it needs to be transferred to another county,” he said. “I’d like to see our county employees for technology, who are funded out of the $2 fee, become state employees.”• Britt Beasley, court administrator for the Fourth Judicial Circuit, of Duval, Clay, and Nassau counties, said, “We’re experiencing somewhat of a crisis in funding. One of the problems is that with the $2 fee going directly to the local government, the local government is experiencing budgetary problems, and they are somewhat reluctant to dispense the money—or there seems to be a lack of understanding of what the money should be used for.” Beasely proposed that “we could actually fund 20 circuit systems totally for perhaps less than you can fund 67 county systems.”• Ken Nelson, chief technology officer for the Sixth Judicial Circuit of Pinellas and Pasco counties, said, “We would like to recommend that the $2 of the $4 fee be returned to the circuit so that it could be administered as a circuit-wide fund, preferably by the chief judge.. . . Right now, we are in a situation where both of our counties micromanage everything we spend, right down to having us have our equipment authorized by the local IT departments. It becomes a real problem.”• Sheldon Gusky, executive director of the Florida Public Defender Association, said the biggest concern of its members is how best to resolve conflicts when they crop up. “Everybody has talked about funding, but nobody has talked about costs. Where are we today? What is the liability out there for the various entities on costs? What is the demand that is not being met?” Chief judges want to control court tech dollars October 15, 2005 Senior Editor Regular Newslast_img read more