Lawmakers, Counties Differ on Juvenile Detention Costs

Polk County Votes to Join Appeal Against Juvenile Justice
Posted at 9:09 PM, Mar 18, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-18 17:15:14-04

TALLAHASSEE, FL. (WTXL) - The Florida Legislature is trying again this year to resolve a long-running dispute about how juvenile-detention costs should be shared between counties and the state.

But as of Wednesday, there was still a gap between what counties were seeking and what lawmakers were offering.

The clash dates back to a 2004 law, stretches through several administrative hearings and the 1st District Court of Appeal and last year saw a compromise bill fail on the final day of the legislative session.

On Wednesday, the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee passed a measure (PCB JUAS 15-01) that would require the counties to pay 57% to the state'43% of juvenile detention costs, not the 50-50 split the counties were seeking. 

The conflict centers on a requirement in the 2004 law that counties pay the "pre-disposition" costs associated with juveniles waiting for cases to be resolved in court. The state Department of Juvenile Justice pays the cost of detaining youths whose cases have been decided --- known as "post-disposition." But the two sides have never agreed on what those terms mean.

The counties have long contended that they were being overcharged. Last year, after a 1st District Court of Appeal ruling in the counties' favor, a bill that would have created a 50-50 split died when the counties insisted on recouping $140 million for past overpayments. 

"I can sympathize with the counties that are having to suffer under this bureaucratic nightmare," said Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. "This (2015) bill at least stops the bleeding, I would hope."

But so far this year, neither chamber has set aside money to reimburse the counties for overpayments. 

"It is an issue that I hope to address," House Justice Appropriations Chairman Larry Metz, R-Yahala, said Wednesday. 

"There's some real disappointment that both the Senate and the House haven't put us in the position we were in last year, which was 50-50 with repayment," said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties.

But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and leader of the Senate's negotiations in the dispute, said he was "a little bit disappointed at the characterization of the Senate's position that I see from the counties."

"Last year our position was clear: a 50-50 split, but with the understanding that the counties would forgo any claim for back payment," Bradley said. "The Senate's position has never been 50-50 plus back payments." 

Bradley has filed a proposal (SB 1414) that would lead to counties paying 60% of the costs and the state picking up 40%.

"We're pretty close to where the House is on the percentages," Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said. "There's actually a parallel track record in working out back payments issues that we've done in other areas of the budget where the county and the state share a responsibility for certain government activities. … So I'm hopeful we can work it out."

Both sides agree that they hate spending taxpayer dollars on litigation instead of, say, prevention.

"We owe it to our taxpayers to end this dispute," Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay told the House panel. "Every dollar that we have to spend towards this reduces the opportunity for us to provide alternatives to (juvenile) detention."

The issue also has been roiled by the fact that some counties have withheld portions of their payments to the Department of Juvenile Justice on the grounds that the money should be invested at the local level.

That, in turn, prompted department Secretary Christy Daly to tell Negron's subcommittee last month that her agency faced a $15.7 million shortfall and wanted legislative approval for a loan to cover it.

"This is ridiculous that you're borrowing," Negron replied. "In fairness, the counties in the past have probably been billed for things they shouldn't have had to pay, but we need to get our accounting house in order (and) come up with a system where you're not relying on intermittent payments from our local government partners."

Negron and Bradley say, they're open to further negotiations, but that they're unlikely to agree to both a 50-50 split and back payments.

"I'm never interested in making ultimatums," Bradley said. "But I think that's likely a bridge too far.