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State-County Dispute Over Juvenile Detention Costs Simmering Again

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Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Politics

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Both sides are unhappy that the Legislature failed to come up with a plan for dividing the costs of detaining young offenders between the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and county governments.

Lawmakers took up the long-simmering dispute this spring, after 19 counties successfully argued in court that the state was shifting too much of the tab for juvenile detention to local taxpayers.

But while the House and Senate agreed on a 50-50 split, the bill (HB 5305) died on the session’s last day in a dispute over whether the counties would be reimbursed for four years of overpayments.

“I was very disappointed,” said Department of Juvenile Justice secretary Wansley Walters. “I thought the Legislature was receptive, but unfortunately, the counties really were very adamant that they wanted back payments, and I think that’s when it fell apart.”

The counties had been holding out for a new formula that would have allowed them to pay a smaller share of the costs while getting reimbursed millions of dollars for the years in which, they said, they had overpaid the state.

The House bill, which passed 100-11 on April 3, would have established a 50-50 cost-sharing formula and reimbursed the counties $140 million in installments over 23 years. But the Senate, while agreeing with the division of costs going forward, wouldn’t accept the reimbursements.

The dispute goes back to 2004 and centers on DJJ’s handling of a law that requires counties help pay for “predisposition,” or the costs of detaining underage offenders before they are sentenced. It affects 38 counties. The 29 poorest counties in the state are considered “fiscally constrained” and aren’t part of the cost-sharing formula.

Walters has said in court documents that the Legislature initially set the formula “so that the counties would be responsible for 89 percent of detention costs and the state would be responsible for 11 percent.”

But the counties have argued that DJJ misinterpreted “predisposition” costs by, for instance, requiring the counties to pay the costs for juveniles who are detained because they violated probation.

“Everybody in legal circles understood that as an actual disposition, when a child is placed on probation, that their case has been disposed of,” said Mike Elwell, Broward County’s director of human services.

In June 2013, the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld an administrative law judge’s ruling that DJJ had shifted more responsibility for the costs to the counties than the law required.

So it fell to lawmakers to come up with a better formula. But with the failure of HB 5305, the department plans to use a formula that will lead to counties paying 57 percent juvenile-detention costs, while the state pays 43 percent.

“We don’t how they worked that formula, but we certainly disagree with it,” said Okaloosa County administrator Ernie Padgett. “It should be the reverse. But the counties were going to go along with the 50-50 (split), as long as we were paid back what we were overcharged.”

From the standpoint of Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who chairs the Senate budget panel for criminal and civil justice, the counties are still ahead.

“Even with the 57-43 split that is going to happen this year, there still is a savings for the counties in comparison to where they were in previous years,” Bradley said.

However, Elwell said, Broward is owed $11 million for overbillings in the last four years. “This is a big issue for us,” he said.

Padgett said Okaloosa County is owed $3 million.

“The counties will still be responsible for what they feel is an unfair portion of the DJJ burden,” said Florida Association of Counties spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller. “So unfortunately, I think you’re going to see the lawsuits that have been ongoing continue until we can reach a solution that is fair to our local taxpayers.”

Walters acknowledged that the dispute has been “very contentious” and, having worked in juvenile services for Miami-Dade County, she’d seen it from both sides.

“It’s a maddening, aggravating situation,” she said. “But being the head of DJJ, I know now that DJJ does not control how that billing is. We’re just trying to keep this system running.”

Padgett said the counties were disappointed “that the Legislature did not act. They should’ve, to help the counties. They elected not to, so we’re hoping that Gov. (Rick) Scott’s office will get involved and help give the counties some relief.”

But Walters said there can be no compromise without the Legislature.

“We don’t have the authority,” she said. “It needs a statute change, and that’s what was being crafted. The counties think DJJ has the authority, and then after that they think the governor has the authority, when in fact we follow the lead of the Legislature.”

According to department spokeswoman Heather DiGiacomo, DJJ will proceed with a rule revision about how pre-disposition costs should be divided between the counties and the state so that policies are “in line with the court ruling and the legislative appropriation.”

This report is by Margie Menzel with The News Service of Florida.

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