MIAMI – Average Floridians might not realize that every time they pay a court fine or fee, the money helps keep government operations afloat. The revenue — especially from traffic tickets — helps pay for everything from wildlife and environmental conservation, compensation for crime victims and even treatments for people with brain and spinal injuries.
But as the pandemic has largely shuttered courts and led to fewer motorists getting tickets, revenue across Florida has plummeted — exposing what critics have long derided as an unreliable and unfair system built on the backs of court defendants.
Take, for just one example, the plight of Epilepsy Florida.
The non-profit, which helps people affected by the seizure-inducing neurological disorder, gets money from a state trust fund that receives $5 for every seat belt infraction. Even before the pandemic, the group was already hurting because fewer people are getting nicked for seat belt tickets these days, leading to a massive drop in revenue.
Now, as Florida budget officials plan for deep revenue shortfalls for the coming state fiscal year, groups such as Epilepsy Florida are bracing for an uncertain 2021.
“We’ve been able to maintain staff but we’ve been doing it by the skin of our teeth. It’s not just court fines. Donations are down too,” said Karen Basha Egozi, the president and CEO of Epilepsy Florida. “Extraordinary cuts would mean we probably need to cut back hours of staff to survive.”
Non-profit groups and government agencies are not the only ones who will suffer as the economy sputters in 2021.
Lawmakers need to reform how courts are used to extract money from people who often can’t afford to pay fees and fines in the reeling economy, said Ashley Thomas, the Florida director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a non-profit that aims to reform monetary obligations in the legal system.
“Its kind of like trying to get blood from a stone,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t make sense to continue to fund these projects this way. If they’re so important, just fund them directly.”
Starting in March 2020, the pandemic largely shut down courthouses across Florida as officials hoped to prevent the spread of the highly contagious novel coronavirus. The shutdowns have created a massive backlog of cases and delayed justice in civil and criminal matters, while drastically impacting revenue flowing into government coffers.
Trials have not resumed on a wide basis in most parts of the state. In Miami-Dade, they remain postponed through Jan. 31.
Statewide, clerks of courts collected $377.4 million in fines and fees for the county fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2020 — down from $432 million the previous year. The loss of revenue could have been even greater had millions not been paid through grassroots efforts to pay off fees and fines for former felons trying to restore their right to vote under Amendment Four before the November election.
The outlook doesn’t look great for the new year, even as COVID-19 vaccines offer hope that life may return to normal later in the year.
For the current county fiscal year that ends Sep. 30, 2021, officials have forecast statewide fees and fines revenue of between $410 million and $421.9 million. according to government statistics. That’s a far cry from $472 million collected in 2014 — or the $539 million collected in 2009.
In Miami-Dade, the state’s largest and most overburdened court system, revenue had also been falling for years before the pandemic.
In the fiscal year that ended last year, the Miami-Dade clerks of court collected just over $60 million, down 15 percent from the previous year. County officials estimate that this year, they will collect $64.7 million, still well below the pre-pandemic levels.
Court clerks — who process the never-ending paperwork needed to record foreclosures, tax deeds, lawsuits, among many other duties — are perpetually short staffed because they too are generally funded just through collections. Once the pandemic eases, staff will be stretched even thinner to deal with the backlog of cases currently in limbo, like evictions and foreclosures.
Miami-Dade Clerk of Court Harvey Ruvin said his office has eliminated 63 vacant positions, and reduced 55 temporary ones.
“In order to absorb the impact of this significant decrease in available funding, we are basically operating with 120 fewer positions than we were a year ago,” Ruvin said.
Most of the pain has been felt from the lack of monies collected from traffic citations.
At one point during the pandemic, statewide traffic revenue collection dropped by nearly 70 percent, Ruvin said, as people holed up in their homes, stopped driving and police officers shifted priorities during the crisis.
In Miami-Dade alone, the drop in citations was staggering.
In 2019, police agencies in Miami-Dade County filed 693,624 traffic citations. Last year, through the first 11 months of the year, it was just 361,718 citations, records show.
“Civil traffic tickets generate a ton of revenue statewide,” said J.D. Peacock, the chair of the Florida Clerks of Court Operations Corporation, a government-created agency that coordinates clerks’ budgets. “We rely heavily on traffic citations to pay for the rest of the system.”
The drop has also impacted advocacy groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which raises a large chunk of money through $50 fees paid by drunk drivers to attend “victim impact” panels. Those ordered to attend the events listen to experiences of people who have been severely injured in drunk-driving crashes, as a way to hammer home the importance of safe driving.
The events, which in Florida are often held in high schools, have gone virtual for now, but there are fewer people being ordered to attend, said David Pinsker, MADD’s senior director of field operations. With in-person fundraising events also sidelined, MADD has had to furlough some employees during the pandemic, he said.
“It’s more than the dollars raised. It’s important that we’re talking to people and letting them know to make good decisions,” Pinsker said of the scaled-back panels.
Just how much the revenue shortfall will impact the state’s overall budget will be determined over the coming months.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will present his budget proposal by the end of January, and lawmakers will write the actual budget during the legislative session that begins in March. DeSantis then has veto power over budget items. The state’s new fiscal year (unlike county calendars) begin on July 1.
The loss of traffic-ticket money alone could create a hole of between $40 to $50 million in the state’s general revenue fund, said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a top-ranking member of the Senate appropriations committee.
“This is going to be a tough year,” Brandes said. “There’s going to be a lot of difficult decisions ahead.”
Groups that benefit from various state-designated trust funds are already bracing.
Miami-Dade & The Florida Keys Crime Stoppers, the non-profit organization that works with police to help publicize unsolved crimes and solicit anonymous tips, has already seen its trust funds from Miami-Dade dip by $48,000 over the past four years. Since the pandemic hit, the organization has eliminated a vacant administrative position and is relying on a part-time bookkeeper.
Money to offer rewards and call centers that field tips 24 hours a day won’t be affected, even as the budget will likely tighten during the coming fiscal year, said Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers Executive Director Suzette Rice.
Instead, she said, the organization may eliminate travel, seminars, hiring of graphic designers for brochures and buying any computer equipment or software updates. “We have to be thoughtful about where the money goes,” Rice said.
As for Epilepsy Florida, the group is also worried about the future.
In 35 counties, the non-profit provides a host of services for people who suffer from epilepsy: paying for medication, medical visits, diagnostic and blood tests and social workers. It also educates teachers and school nurses on how to recognize students who may have epilepsy.
“We teach them to be able to spot what could be a seizure,” said Egozi, the president of the group. “Sometimes, they’re the first ones to tell a parent.”
The 50-year-old organization gets some money directly from state government appropriations, and a big chunk from the Epilepsy Trust Fund, which was first established in 1990.
For years, the funding model — $5 from every seat belt infraction — brought in healthy funds for the Florida Epilepsy Services Program, which funds Egozi’s group.
In the fiscal year that ended in 2014, for example, the statewide program received $1.1 million. In the year that ended midway through 2020, the trust fund kicked in just $240,000.
The reason is that the number of seat-belt citations have dropped dramatically — over 70 percent — during the past decade after lawmakers made not wearing a seat belt a primary offense, which means a police officer can pull you over just for not being strapped in.
“The good news is Floridians are safer. They’re clicking their seat belts, which is good,” Egozi said. “But it really affected the Epilepsy Trust Fund. It has been going down exponentially since the seat belt law changed. It has really affected our services. Now, with COVID ... it will go down a lot more.”