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Illegal shift of detention expenses called by court

Published November 16, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - State legislators acted illegally when they shifted the $90-million cost of operating juvenile detention centers on Florida's 67 counties, Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom ruled Monday.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed in July by the counties and the Florida Association of Counties.

The Florida Constitution requires the Legislature to get a two-thirds vote of its members when it forces local governments to pick up an expense without providing money to cover it. The Senate voted 37-3 for the measure but the House voted 62-55, well short of two-thirds.

Counties and cities in Florida persuaded voters in 1990 to pass a constitutional amendment to prevent "unfunded mandates," when lawmakers dump expensive programs on local governments without providing the money to pay for them.

Housing juvenile offenders was the state's responsibility for years, but this year lawmakers shifted the cost to the counties as way to balance the budget and comply with a constitutional amendment requiring the state to pick up all costs of running state courts.

Mary Kay Caresio, lobbyist for the Association of Counties, said she hopes lawmakers work out an agreement with county officials.

"Our position has been that the counties have been stretched beyond belief - going through their reserves and hurricanes and everything, this is not a good time to be adding unfunded mandates on the counties' backs," Caresio said.

A spokesman for House Speaker Allan Bense said he would have to review the ruling before determining what legislators will do. Lawmakers plan to meet in special session in December to handle hurricane-related issues and could deal with the juvenile detention centers then.

Some lawmakers said the counties should get accustomed to paying for juvenile detention centers the same way they pay for county jails where inmates are housed before they go to trial.

"Why wouldn't they be able to pick up the costs?" asked Senate Majority Leader Alex Villalobos.

Counties began picking up the costs of operating juvenile detention centers in October. Pinellas County estimated annual costs at $5.5-million; Hillsborough, $6.7-million; Pasco, $2.3-million; Hernando, $693,000 and Citrus, $925,000.

[Last modified November 16, 2004, 00:39:15]

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