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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 11, 2005 14 years ago

Up Close and Personal

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There's a new face at the Pinellas County clerk of court's office.
by: Adam Hughes Staff Writer

Up Close and Personal

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Clerk of Court Ken Burke rides an elevator from his fourth-floor office in the downtown Clearwater courthouse to the civil records division on the first floor. There he counts the number of customers standing in line. He watches how long it takes them to pay fees or request court files.

Since taking office Jan. 4, Burke has made customer service one of the top priorities for his staff of 620 employees. He wants nothing less than "exceptional service." He likes what he sees so far.

"I met with all the managers and told them we cannot have long lines at the counters," he says. "It's improved within a one-month span because we told our managers it's a priority.

"That problem has not been solved totally," he acknowledges. "The south county branch office (in St. Petersburg) is sort of a problem for us. There just aren't enough counters there."

But Burke is trying to solve that problem. Only the clerk's office doesn't own the facilities. The county does. That restricts his ability to make quick changes.

Burke faces a similar hurdle in trying to upgrade the clerk's aging computer systems. He must rely on technicians who report to County Administrator Steve Spratt and ultimately to the Pinellas County Commission.

That's not a knock against the county, Burke says. The county has assigned 20 technicians, for instance, to the work on the clerk's Consolidated Justice Information System, an internal system used by the court officers and law enforcement personnel.

"We've told them that's our No. 1 priority," he says. "They've been good about that. They're trying to do their best with the limited resources they have. They're trying to be as service-minded as possible."

Still, such hurdles don't lessen the frustration for this newly installed constitutional officer, who wants change immediately.

"It's not being able to do everything at once," Burke says. "You want to do everything right now, and then you realize you can't do it right now."

Positive feedback

Burke took over from Karleen DeBlaker, who retired Jan. 3 after 24 years as the Pinellas clerk. A certified public accountant, Burke previously worked as a law firm administrator and vice president of a title insurance company.

Burke acknowledges his management style differs considerably from his predecessor. "It's probably a more hands-on approach," he replies.

Burke's is looking for ways to pare costs and increase revenue. What he found has encouraged him.

Notwithstanding the facilities and technology issues, Burke says DeBlaker bequeathed to him a lean operation run by an able team.

"I value the staff I inherited from her," he says. "The senior staff that was in place is still in place."

Burke doesn't make such claims just on face value, either. Since taking office, he has met nearly every one of his employees. Just recently, for instance, he completed a tour of the clerk's second-shift operations at the county's Criminal Justice Center.

This face-to-face introduction impressed workers, says Myriam Irizarry, one of Burke's three chief deputies. As head of court and operational services, she accompanied him on several tours.

"He would literally ask people who is in the pictures on their desks," she says. "He would ask them where they went to school. He also wanted to know the personal side."

Later, Irizarry says, Burke would comment about just how impressed he was with the competency of the clerks at all levels of the organization.

"He was surprised at the seriousness of how they do their jobs," she says. "He was impressed with their commitment to the work."

Burke's appreciation for their work also has had a positive impact on employees, Irizarry says.

"It's been a wonderful transition for us," she says. "Karleen DeBlaker and Ken worked together before he took office. So it was very much a smooth transition. When he came in, he made everyone feel comfortable. Since he didn't bring in any new people, it enabled people to relax and be at ease. It was a seamless transition."

St. Petersburg attorney Russ Cheatham, who handles foreclosures, says: "With the new clerk, I've made it a habit to ask how things seem to be going on in the clerk's office. I've gotten positive feedback from the clerks I've spoken to."

Revenue matters

Burke faces tough issues early in his first term. Last year, the state Legislature transferred responsibility for funding the operations of the state courts and the clerks' offices to the state from county government. The Legislature requires each clerk's office to be self-supporting.

To pay their own way, clerks' offices across the state have raised court user fees to statutory maximums. DeBlaker adopted many fee increases prior to Burke's November election.

This has posed some consternation to court users such as Clearwater attorney Doug Hilkert. For instance, he protested the clerk's decision to create a new $6 fee for each writ of possession filed in a foreclosure action.

"I asked the clerk at the window to show me the statutory justification for charging the fee," he says. "Show me and I'll gladly pay it. I also told them it would be one thing if you had sent out a letter and said we're going to be imposing this fee. I certainly wouldn't have been surprised by it."

Hilkert spoke with Burke and Irizarry about his concerns. After researching the issue, Burke decided to retract the fee.

"I understand the clerks are faced with (the mandates of) Article V of the Florida Constitution," Hilkert says. "They have to maximize revenue. I understand that. But there has to be some authority for it. And I don't think there's authority for collecting a fee when we've already paid the filing fee."

The need to find new revenue puts Burke in a tough spot. For instance, the Legislature restricts budget increases to 3% over the prior fiscal year. That limits increases in court and clerk salaries to only 3%.

In Pinellas, however, 540 of the 620 employees in the clerk's office are classified as part of the county's unified personnel system. So the county Unified Personnel Board could authorize salary increases in excess of the statutory maximum of 3% for those 540 workers and create a conflict with the legislative mandate. That's a problem because labor accounts for about 80% of Burke's annual budget.

"It's out of my control," he acknowledges.

To compound that problem, Burke says the clerk's office is slightly off an internal budget benchmark. The office has an annual operating budget of about $44 million, based on annual court revenue of $22.8 million. He would like to see at least 25% of the annual court revenue collected within each quarter. That's a problem because his office collected only about 23% of its budget during the first quarter of the current fiscal year.

"So you hope the next three quarters are above 25%," Burke says. "But what if we don't? No one seems to know the answer to that question. It's not as if we can advertise for you to go out and sue your neighbor to raise revenue."

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