A decade into a dispute about how to divvy up the costs of detaining young offenders, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice and more than two-dozen counties are digging in for more legal fighting.
The Florida Association of Counties and 25 counties have signed on to cases filed since mid-June in the state Division of Administrative Hearings, while the department is revising its latest proposal after a rule-making hearing last month ended in impasse.
Hundreds of millions of dollars hang in the balance.
The conflict centers on the department's handling of a 2004 law that requires the counties to pay the "predisposition" costs associated with juveniles waiting for their cases to be resolved in court. The state pays the cost of detaining juveniles "postdisposition" -- that is, after their cases have been decided -- but the two sides remain far apart on how to define those and other key terms.
"It'?s a fundamental disagreement," Florida Association of Counties spokeswoman Cragin Mosteller said Monday.
For instance, under the current department rule, which was adopted in 2010, a county must pay for detaining a youth whose case has already been resolved and then, while on probation, commits a new offense that violates terms of the probation.
"It?s going to take the Legislature to resolve whether or not the counties pay for new law violations or not," Department of Juvenile Justice Chief of Staff Jason Welty said. "We believe that they should be. The governor believes that they should be. And we believe that the Legislature believes that they should be. But (the counties) obviously don'?t."
The counties have argued that the department misinterpreted the cost-sharing formula, and so far courts have backed them. In June 2013, the 1st District Court of Appeal upheld an administrative law judge's ruling that the department had shifted a larger share of the costs to the counties than the law required.
The appeals court also agreed with the counties on such key definitions as "final court disposition" and "actual costs," noting, "We need not comment further, other than to commend the (administrative law judge's) extensive and accurate analysis of the rules in question."
Until that ruling, the counties had been required to pay 75 percent of all juvenile detention costs, while the department maintained that the Legislature actually intended for counties to pay 89 percent.
In the wake of the ruling, lawmakers took up the question during this year'?s legislative session. But a bill creating a 50-50 formula died on the last day when counties insisted that the measure include $140 million in reimbursement for past overcharges.
With the failure of the bill, the governor'?s office and the department decided to use a formula that will lead to counties paying 57 percent of juvenile-detention costs, while the state pays 43 percent.
The counties say that formula is still unfair and doesn'?t take into account the appeals-court and Division of Administrative Hearings rulings. That has led to the Florida Association of Counties and the counties returning to the Division of Administrative Hearings. The counties are also seeking to simplify the formula by which the department calculates their share of the costs.
"We feel very strongly," Mosteller said. "We certainly feel the courts have ruled in our favor clearly in the past. We would like to see that kind of consistency come from DJJ, but ultimately that is going to be their decision. Unless they can make those changes in the draft rule, we'?ll look to DOAH to make a decision."
Welty agreed that a ruling from an administrative law judge could help break the logjam.
"I think a DOAH ruling could help articulate or define what it is that we should be doing as it relates to the one issue that?'s really the impasse issue, and that'?s what'?s predisposition and what'?s postdisposition," he said. "Obviously our interpretation and the counties'? interpretation are different. And absent the Legislature changing the statute, a judge could actually make that determination of what the Legislature intended, as it relates to the statute and what the rule interpretation should be."
Welty said the department is revising the draft rule and will publish notice of another rule hearing later this month.
The 25 counties challenging the rule are Alachua, Bay, Brevard, Broward, Charlotte, Collier, Escambia, Flagler, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Lee, Leon, Manatee, Martin, Nassau, Okaloosa, Palm Beach, Pinellas, Santa Rosa, St. Johns, St. Lucie, Sarasota, Volusia and Walton.
The dispute affects 38 of Florida's 67 counties. The poorest 29 counties are considered "fiscally constrained" and aren't part of the cost-sharing formula.