Ruling could be worth $100M to Florida counties, including Escambia


An appeals court ruling could mean the state owes more than $100 million to counties in a long-running dispute about who pays to detain juvenile offenders.

The ruling last week by the 1st District Court of Appeal came as senators consider a bill aimed at resolving the dispute, which centers on what are known as “predisposition” costs before underage offenders are sentenced. Counties contend that the state has forced them to pay too large a share of the costs.

A panel of the appeals court upheld an earlier ruling against the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The effect is that the department would have to give counties credit toward overpayments in juvenile-detention bills from the state.

Last week’s ruling is worth more than $100 million to the dozens of counties involved, said Florida Association of Counties spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller.

“Based on DJJ’s own stipulation (of figures involved in the dispute), the counties have been overcharged between $100 (million) and $200 million dollars,” Mosteller said.

The ruling came as Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, seeks to pass a bill (SB 1322) aimed at creating a new cost-sharing formula while putting past quarrels to rest.

The measure would mandate a 50-50 split between the Department of Juvenile Justice and the participating counties — along with an agreement by the counties to drop any claims to back payments.

With three weeks left in the annual legislative session, however, it remains unclear whether Latvala’s bill could pass. The bill still faces two Senate committees, while the House version (HB 1279), filed by Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, has not been heard in committees. Chris Latvala is the son of Jack Latvala.

The dispute centers on DJJ’s handling of a 2004 law that requires counties to help pay for predisposition costs. It affects 38 counties, many of which have taken cases to the state Division of Administrative Hearings.

In 2013, the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld an administrative law judge’s ruling that the Department of Juvenile Justice had shifted more responsibility for the costs to counties than the law required. The 2014 Legislature then tried to come up with another formula. But a bill proposing a 50-50 split died when the counties sought hundreds of millions of dollars in back payments. As a result, Gov. Rick Scott and the department settled on the current 57-43 percent formula, which the counties have argued is too high.

The billing process also has sparked a series of disagreements between the state and counties — some of which were addressed in last week’s appeals-court ruling. Currently, the counties pay annual estimated costs in advance. They contend this frequently results in being owed millions in overpayments or getting hit with unexpected bills at the last minute.

Under Latvala’s bill, counties would pay their actual costs for the previous year. The measure would require the counties to pay a total of $42.5 million for detention costs during the upcoming 2016-17 fiscal year, while the state would pay the rest. After that, the state and counties would split the costs evenly.

The Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee unanimously passed the measure Feb. 11. But Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, warned then that the deal would be off unless all the counties — many of which have active cases pending against the department — signed letters waiving their claims.

Negron said Friday he stands by that condition in the wake of the ruling.

“The counties are still in a precarious legal position because you never know how the (Florida) Supreme Court will rule,” he said. “And the decision — while favorable on its face to the counties — also involves a remand to trial courts to make final determination as to a specific amount. The bottom line for me is: Now is the right time to settle our differences and move forward as respectful partners together.”

Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles, whose county has played a key role in the dispute, said he was “very optimistic that we’ll see a legislative resolution to this issue this year.”

Boyles said his understanding of the ruling was that it gives counties the right to withhold money to settle bills with the department. The Legislature and the department have argued the counties can only be reimbursed through the legislative process.

However, Boyles said the counties would be wise not to “flaunt” the ruling.

“I think what you’ll find with most folks who represent county government, the preferred method to settle this issue is not through a forced withholding from the DJJ by virtue of a court ruling, but rather through legislative action that is a result of compromise and negotiation between the Legislature and the counties,” he said.

Negron agreed.

“It’s in the best interests of everyone to resolve this matter now with a 50-50 split,” he said. “And I’m optimistic that we have the votes in the Senate to do that. I hope the House of Representatives will consider bringing all the litigation to a close and moving forward on a 50-50 basis.”

Asked about the ruling Thursday, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, was noncommittal as lawmakers move toward hold budget conference negotiations. He said moving to a 50-50 split instead of the current 57-43 formula could cost the state about $12 million a year, which would not include addressing the past overpayment issue.

“There’s still a conversation that can take place on the dollars and cents, maybe not so much the policy, but we understand that to be about a $12 million recurring price tag,” Crisafulli said. “It’s a discussion that will take place, most likely, with our Senate partners as we move through the conferencing process.”

Editor’s note: The state owes Escambia County $6.6 million.