Pasco clerk takes budget complaint to court
NEW PORT RICHEY – Pasco court clerk Nikki Alvarez-Sowles has filed a lawsuit against Pasco County, saying county officials failed to properly fund her department.
For months, Alvarez-Sowles publicly and privately urged county officials to reconsider their financial support for his office. The lawsuit was filed on Friday, days after she told commissioners she was going to court for the disputed expenses.
She claims in the lawsuit that the county’s failure to properly fund her office forced her to divert funds from other sources, hampering the functioning of her office.
Her costume details two categories she believes the county has lacked funding for. One is the technical system that tracks criminal justice information for various agencies. The other is the New Port Richey Judicial Center, an annex to the judicial functions of the town of Dade, which is the official county seat.
The lawsuit cites changes to the uniform rules for court funding that voters approved in 1998.
“Counties will be required to finance the cost of communications services, existing radio systems, existing multi-agency court information systems,” the lawsuit said. “Counties must also pay reasonable and necessary salaries, costs and expenses of the state court system to meet local requirements as determined by general law.”
Alvarez-Sowles argues that the county has provided only a portion of the funds needed to operate the multi-agency court information system that his office manages for the county for various agencies. While the plan is to increase this in the future, it burdens his office with the additional expense of keeping the technology running, even as the county recognizes its obligations to the program and has the funds to pay the full cost, depending on the suit.
For years, the county maintained the court information system, but in 2016 county officials asked the clerk to remove it and move to a modern program called CLERICUS. Alvarez-Sowles said his office did. “The consequence of being a good partner was that the clerk began to bear the cost” of the system from January 2017, according to the lawsuit.
Regarding the costs of the West Pasco Judicial Center in New Port Richey, the complaint says state law requires each county to maintain a fully operational court in its county seat. The lawsuit argues that the county must pay for “local requirements” and that the management of a second fully functioning court center in New Port Richey is the county’s choice and, therefore, the county’s fiscal responsibility.
Alvarez-Sowles told commissioners his office took a closer look at its finances after last year’s pandemic and concluded that the law clearly required the county to contribute more to its budget. When she submitted her financial needs to the board in May, she asked for $ 13.3 million, or nearly $ 9 million more than the current exercise.
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County officials have not commented on the trial.