Cash-strapped Miami-Dade courts hampering business community
By Risa Polansky
Budget cuts to the state's court systems have created a backlog of cases that is clogging the cogs of the already economically troubled business community, players say.
As next month's legislative session approaches, judicial officials and commerce proponents are lobbying lawmakers to leave the taxed justice system alone.
"In the last 16 months, the Miami-Dade courts have taken an 11% cut in our budget, which has correlated to almost a 20% cut in our support staff," said Judge Joseph P. Farina, chief judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court. "What this means is businesses that deal with collections, contract disputes, landlord and tenant matters both of residential and commercial matters, real estate, foreclosures, corporate and partnership dissolutions or controversies — all of these matters and many more types are going to be delayed, are going to cost more to either prosecute or defend."
The end result: "severe economic loss for our community," he said. "It translates into loss of jobs because businesses either will not be able to collect the monies due to them or acquire assets to be put in the stream of commerce. It means a decrease of tax revenue because properties are no longer on the market, the values of properties are decreased."
Judge Farina made the same case to the Miami-Dade Legislative Delegation at a public hearing last week, asking local lawmakers that the courts "be held harmless" from further cuts.
"Right now, we're at least 18 months behind in our workload," he said in an interview — just on the civil side.
A backlog of foreclosure cases means $9.9 billion in added costs and lost property values annually for Florida residents, according to an economic study by Coral Gables-based Washington Economics Group.
All other types of civil cases as of late 2008 had an average five-and-a-half-month delay, the study says — adding more than $184 million in legal costs a year.
Business organizations are taking note.
"It's one of our top agenda issues" and has been for a few years, said Rick McAllister, president and CEO of the Florida Retail Federation.
"It's very important to all businesses, not just retailers, to have access to courts and have speedy courts," he said. "It's everything from small claims court, where businesses have a customer who has not paid them, and maybe has some collateral that belongs to the business — that's the small end — right on up to some sort of decision about a relationship between two businesses or between a business and a regulator that determines how the business can or cannot operate."
Trey Goldman, legislative counsel for the Florida Association of Realtors, said the same.
The association "is certainly mindful of an appropriate level of court funding. What's appropriate is a determination to be made, but at the end of the day, what this association and the business community at large want is a court system that works, and works in a timely manner."
Local business organizations "must, must put their best foot forward in saving the courts from any further budget cuts" — or face losing area companies, Judge Farina said.
"The full and proper funding of our civil courts has a direct relationship to every business' bottom line in this community... civil courts are not a luxury, but an economic necessity."