Pasco County Clerk & Comptroller Nikki Alvarez-Sowles has been in the news in recent weeks, as she pushes for a massive budget increase for her office.
She raised the issue again, during a July 13 talk with members of the East Pasco Networking Group at the Sarah Vande Berg Tennis and Wellness Center in Zephyrhills.
Alvarez-Sowles is requesting about $13.3 million in her fiscal 2021-2022 budget, which represents nearly $9 million more than the constitutional officer’s budget this year.
She claims the budget hike is needed for her office to fulfill statutory responsibilities for the coming year.
Alvarez-Sowles also mentioned a timely concern.
She noted she anticipates an increased workload for her office with an influx of court trials and eviction notices, amid the easing of pandemic-related restrictions and moratoriums.
“I am concerned that when the court starts ramping up, being able to support the customers when that happens. I want to make sure that we’re there for them, and I don’t want to kill my staff at the same time, in providing those services,” Alvarez-Sowles said.
The clerk initially presented her budget increase request in an April 30 letter to Pasco County Commission Chairman Ron Oakley and his county board colleagues.
But, the county’s administration has pushed back against the request, particularly Pasco County Administrator Dan Biles and Pasco County Budget Director Robert Goehig.
The clerk said the additional funding is needed to satisfy Florida Statute 29.008, which addresses county funding of court-related functions.
Generally, the statute details “the county’s obligation to pay on certain things, for technology and for the court-related items that I’m not allowed by law to use my fee-funded budget from courts to pay for,” Alvarez-Sowles said.
Because of this finding, she reasoned, “I submitted a budget to the board that was a lot higher than it had ever been in prior years, ever.”
The breakdown of Alvarez-Sowles’ budgetary increase is as follows:
- County funding of court-related local requirements computes to about $7.4 million
- County funding of board and court-related technology costs (hardware, software, programming) totaling nearly $1.25 milllion
- Increases for retirement costs and group health insurance, as well as a pay adjustment of 3%, totaling about $366,000
During the speaking engagement, Alvarez-Sowles told The Laker/Lutz News “the rub” or main disconnect between her office and county leadership “is agreeing on what is and what is not a local requirement,” particularly the $7.4 million request.
She contends the county is obligated to fund full-service expenses for the West Pasco Judicial Center courthouse annex in New Port Richey — as opposed to using the clerk’s fee-funded budget for civil and criminal jury trials, and so on.
Part of the disagreement, Alvarez-Sowles said, centers around state law only requiring one courthouse in the county seat, which is the Historic Pasco County Courthouse in Dade City.
With that, county officials have stated they’re not responsible for funding the West Pasco courthouse annex, Alvarez-Sowles explained.
She disagrees with their stance: “(They say) like, ‘There’s no way we’re responsible to pay for the (West Pasco) courthouse,’ and I’m saying, ‘Well, you could have one (courthouse in Dade City) and I wouldn’t have this many expenses,’ but we don’t, and you duplicated services, and I am doing double the work in some situations.”
Of lesser note, county administration has since agreed to fund 40% of the clerk’s information technology (IT) costs, or just under $500,000 of the roughly $1.2 million mark.
Alvarez-Sowles said that’s inadequate.
She claimed the county is obligated to fund technology for the multi-agency criminal justice system (which includes state attorney’s, public defender, courts and clerk).
Said Alvarez-Sowles, “All of these services requires IT funding to be able to bring about, so I’m going to continue discussions with the county, because I really need that money for the technologies and things we have planned to serve our community.”
Alvarez-Sowles emphasized that she wants to ensure her office is “properly funded” in order to “provide a higher level of service, better services to our community, and I also want to provide the tools to the team.”
The constitutional officer, too, underscored the need to be able to offer higher salaries, from entry-level to supervisorial roles within the clerk structure.
The entry-level wage at the clerk’s office is $13.28 per hour.
This reality makes it tough to compete with area businesses and organizations offering around $15 an hour and, in some cases, paying potential employees to interview for vacancies, she said.
“I need to have competitive salaries,” said Alvarez-Sowles. “Our office is paid very low in our community, and even in comparison to other local government agencies in the community, so there is a big discrepancy.”
The situation has caused turnover and has made it difficult to fill vacancies.
Employees stay for a year or two and then transfer to another county role or up through the court or state attorney’s office, Alvarez-Sowles said.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic the clerk’s office had about 320 employees, she said.
It’s since dropped down to 283 employees, she said.
That hampers her operations, she said.
“I feel like we are training ground (for other agencies), so I need to have longevity, and I need to be able to plan for succession, and be able to have a stellar team, so I need the funding to pay for the proper salaries,” she said.
During the breakfast talk, the clerk also touched on some ongoing initiatives in her office.
- Implementation of a multi-year strategic plan in regards to services and other projects
- Partnership with Amscot, authorizing them to accept payments on behalf of the clerk’s office
- Online payment expansion to include Apple Pay, Google Pay, Venmo and debit card capabilities (expected by November)
- Development of a customer queue management system allowing residents to check wait times and make service appointments online
- Provide affordable legal help and attorney consultations for self-represented individuals in civil matters related to divorce, residential landlord/tenant, small claims and so on
- E-certification document capabilities for deeds, liens, closings and so on
In most jurisdictions, the clerk & comptroller is vested with a large number of administrative duties.
This includes clerk of the circuit court, as well as county auditor, ex-officio, clerk of the county commission, finance officer, recorder and treasurer.
Residents often use the clerk’s office to pay traffic and criminal fines, initiate or contest a civil case, pursue probate issues and make child support payments. The office also handles domestic violence injunctions, Baker Act and Marchman Act petitions, passport applications, marriage licenses and more.
Published August 04, 2021