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House, Senate Agree On Solution To Juvenile-Detention Dispute

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TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – House and Senate budget writers have agreed on a potential solution to a long-running dispute between the state and counties about who pays to lock up juvenile offenders.

The counties and the state Department of Juvenile Justice have repeatedly battled about how to split the tab under a 2004 law that requires counties to pay "pre-disposition" costs associated with juvenile offenders who are waiting for their cases to be resolved in court.

Now, lawmakers from both chambers are united behind a 57-43 split --- the counties would pay 57 percent, the state 43 percent --- with no back payments for money that counties contend they overpaid in the past.

That's a long way from the 50-50 split the counties almost got in 2014. During this year's budget talks, counties still hoped for that split and wanted reimbursement for past years.

But Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and one of the key negotiators in the dispute, said a recent decision by an administrative law judge "confirmed that the 57-43 split was consistent with statute."

"I think we had a pretty good idea that that was the fair split," agreed House Justice Appropriations Chairman Larry Metz, R-Yalaha.

The counties have long argued that their costs for juvenile detention amounted to an unfunded mandate. While the 2004 law requires counties to pay "pre-disposition" costs, the department pays the costs of detaining youths whose cases have been decided --- known as "post-disposition." But counties and the state have never agreed on what those terms meant.

For several years, the rulings favored the counties. In 2012, Administrative Law Judge W. David Watkins ruled against the state, and the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld his decision the following year.

Following those rulings, the 2014 Legislature considered a bill that would have created a 50-50 split. But the measure died when the counties insisted on recouping $140 million for past overpayments.

In April, Watkins issued another ruling in the dispute, with both sides claiming victory. Watkins found that some parts of a rule proposed by the Department of Juvenile Justice to carry out the law were improper. But he also found in favor of the department on a key issue involving who should pay detention costs when juvenile offenders commit probation violations.

Now, that ruling is driving the Legislature's efforts to come up with a solution.

"Our desire is to bring finality to this issue," Bradley said.

"At this time we just want to continue working with the leaders of the House and Senate to see if we can reach a true partnership," said Florida Association of Counties spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller.

Also, a budget-related bill that is still being negotiated contains language that could force some counties to make back payments to the state. It "requires the Department of Revenue to review county juvenile-detention payments to the Department of Juvenile Justice to ensure that counties are fulfilling their financial responsibilities. If the Department of Revenue determines that a county has not met its obligations, it must deduct the amount owed to the Department of Juvenile Justice from shared revenue funds provided to the county."

But Bradley also noted that lawmakers had reinstated language in the so-called budget "implementing" bill that would suspend for one year a requirement that counties spend 1.5 percent more on county-funded court system obligations.

"They are our partners, and that was a show of good faith to them that we are hearing their concerns," he said.

Mosteller agreed that the court language "is a big help to counties. Counties invest as they need to for court infrastructure, and to have it mandated is really just another unfunded mandate. So we really appreciate the language that would allow counties to make that choice."

The News Service of Florida's Margie Menzel contributed to this report.

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