County Fights to Get Back $5 Million Owed by State by Jeremy Maready

Posted: March 13, 2014 in News and politics

BARTOW | Florida’s Department of Juvenile Justice owes Polk County nearly $5 million it overbilled for young prisoners, and the county is fighting to get the money back.

After being rebuffed by the department for the overcharges made between 2009 and 2012, Polk has joined a group of counties from across the state that are asking for help from Tallahassee’s highest offices.

Polk County Attorney Michael Craig’s office sent a letter Feb. 4 appealing to Gov. Rick Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford.

“Acting without authority during the period of 2009-2012, the Department of Juvenile Justice overbilled, and Polk County was forced to pay, $4,782,199.76 in excess of the amounts provided by Florida law,” said the letter, which was signed by the five-member Polk County Commission. “We are asking for your assistance to restore the funds to Polk County.”

The state Legislature could appropriate money for the refund in the upcoming session this year, Craig said, but because of the tens of millions owed in total to all 20 counties pressing for repayments, it might overlap into additional fiscal years.

“We’ve sent the letter and we will be working to return the funds to our taxpayers,” Craig said. “It’s a lot of money.”

So far, the county has had no response from Scott’s office, although Craig said he hopes to meet with legislators and members of Scott’s office in the near future.

But Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, said he and his staff are currently negotiating a fix to the problem, but it won’t happen until lawmakers meet this year to discuss the state budget.

“You can’t have a resolution until we set the budget,” said McKeel, who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and the Joint Legislative Budget Commission. He said he also is working with the Florida Association of Counties to find a billing fix.

McKeel said he was surprised at the letter from the Polk County Commission, and in a way, felt slighted by its content.

“They pop off and send this letter like no one has heard about it,” he said. “I don’t understand it.

“We’re going to get there, to a solution. That’s what I told the county. I was frustrated by it (the letter). We’ve been working on it for months.”

Officials at DJJ are also trying to determine how to reach a resolution, department spokeswoman Heather DiGiacomo said, but they don’t know how long that will take.

Before 2004, the state bore the costs for housing juvenile offenders, Craig said. That year, lawmakers decided the state should split those costs with the counties, but courts later invalidated that as an unfunded mandate.

After that decision, the counties and DJJ officials negotiated a “fair and equitable” deal to split the costs: Counties would pay to house juvenile offenders from the time they were arrested until a verdict was rendered, records show.

After the verdict, DJJ was to pick up the cost of housing.

But in 2008, DJJ officials tried to shift the financial burden of housing the juveniles to the counties, according to the letter.

“First, the Department attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain an amendment to Florida Statutes,” Craig’s letter said. “Next, the Department attempted to modify their administrative rule, but ultimately withdrew the proposal. Despite the fact that efforts to establish a legal basis to do so had previously failed, the Department then began to modify the allocation of costs to counties on their own initiative.”

In 2010, a new rule was adopted by DJJ that put more of a financial burden on the counties, according to the letter.

But that rule was challenged in court, which eventually invalidated DJJ’s rule and was later upheld on appeal to the First District Court of Appeal, records showed.

“The rule was not invalidated on the basis of a mere technicality; rather, the rule was invalidated because the Department ignored the requirements of Florida law,” the letter said.

What the ruling meant, however, is in dispute.

Although the 2013 ruling by the appellate court resulted in a change in the cost-sharing responsibilities for defendants in state facilities, the “court ruling did not order DJJ to pay the counties for prior year adjustments,” DiGiacomo said.

“In addition, it is important to note that the court ruling by the First District Court of Appeal only covers (fiscal year) 2008-09. For the additional years as outlined in the (Polk County) letter, these cases are being held in abeyance until completion of the 2014 Legislative Session and the amount of the credits are not final.”

The result is that the county hasn’t received any repayments from DJJ for any year.

“The Department has acknowledged that they overcharged Polk County by the $4.78 million,” the Polk letter said. “They calculated that figure themselves and have stipulated to it; however the Department has asserted that it will not provide any reimbursement of these amounts, as the Department views this as an issue between the counties and the Legislature.”

Craig said DJJ has cited that certain counties, like Polk, opted out of the state’s cost-sharing program and have instead begun housing juveniles at their own cost.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office began housing juvenile offenders in October 2011 to save money, according to county records.

But because of that change, Polk can’t be issued credits for future DJJ services, Craig said.

The question still remains on whether Polk can get its money back, and DJJ officials said they are working on that.

DiGiacomo said DJJ still doesn’t know whether the issue of credits to the counties, including Polk, will be resolved this year.

“The governor and the agency made a recommendation adjusting the state’s and counties’ cost, which comports with the court ruling,” DiGiacomo said. “We are working with policy makers on a final resolution and are confident that a resolution will be reached.”

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