An issue that has bedeviled dozens of counties across Florida — including Miami-Dade and Broward — returns to the spotlight this legislative session thanks to a Clearwater senator who has filed a bill that would fix a shamefully inequitable state mandate.
In 2004, the Florida Legislature forced 38 counties to pay a portion of the costs of incarcerating juveniles in the counties where they live before they are adjudicated into state care. Before that bill became law, the state paid all those costs.
But as is common practice in Tallahassee, lawmakers looked for ways to pass down costs in order to beef up the state budget for other projects and programs.
Even though a host of counties won a lawsuit seeking redress from an onerous billing system, the state merely adopted a new policy to short-circuit the ruling.
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A 2013 ruling determined that the Department of Juvenile Justice was overcharging counties, and the judge invalidated the agency’s rule that forced them to pay 75 percent of detention costs when they should have been only responsible for 32 percent.
Gov. Rick Scott decided to require counties to cover 57 percent of those costs, but receive no back payments for the overcharges.
The counties lobbied for a 50-50 split back then, but gained no ground. Since the Legislature did not address the issue during the 2014 session, DJJ adopted the governor’s proposal.
And the convoluted billing system only adds to the fundamental unfairness.
According to Cragin Mosteller, spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties, state law requires counties to pay an estimated amount up front. Then, at the end of the fiscal year after actual costs are calculated, each county receives an adjustment — either a reimbursement for overpaying or another bill for underpayment. That’s where the trouble really starts.
Here’s how it works, using the term loosely: DJJ might tell a county at the start of the year that its estimated bill is, say, $500,000. But at the end of the fiscal year, DJJ might hit up the county for $750,000. The county might protest, go through its receipts and say, Nope, we only owe you $400,000. Should DJJ accept this, the department is still $350,000 in the hole. No problem, it just divides the debt among what the other counties have to pay, according to Ms. Mosteller. “It never results in accurate payments from counties and can lock up that money for years,” she said.
“It’s not based on actual costs ... so it resulted in lots and lots of lawsuits.”
Sen. Jack Latvala’s legislation would impose some sanity. His bill eliminates the estimated-prepayment nonsense. Instead, counties would pay its correct share of the previous year’s costs at the beginning of the next fiscal year. Plus, the final bill would be split 50-50 between the counties and the state.
Miami-Dade County could save between $1 million and $2 million a year. For Broward County, the savings could be in the $750,000 range.
The Senate bill does not have a House companion yet. It’s a worthy pursuit and a South Florida representative should step up.
The bottom line is that the billing system is clearly broken. But legislators have been loathe to fix it.
The question is why.
We’d like answers to that in the House and Senate. Their constituents back home should demand answers.
Millions of their tax dollars are flowing to Tallahassee and not returning as they should be. That just doesn’t seem to be a fair deal.
The original version of this editorial was published in the Bradenton Herald, a sister McClatchy newspaper.