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Convicted racketeer Thomas Martone of Hallandale Beach, Fla., nearly had his 15-year prison sentence overturned last June. That’s because frustrated appellate judges couldn’t obtain the transcript from Martone’s trial. And without the transcripts, the appeal couldn’t be fully reviewed. Martone had been tried in Broward Circuit Court, where court reporters in the criminal division are overworked, underpaid and short in number. And although officials are trying to resolve the problem with higher pay, the job crunch may be getting worse as a shakeout hits the court-reporting industry in Broward. Overall, there aren’t enough court reporters to go around. Many who graduate from the nation’s 90 certified schools bypass court reporting altogether to take jobs in the more lucrative closed-circuit TV captioning business. But the problem is particularly acute in Broward, where pay has lagged behind other communities. For example, Court reporters in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties earn $4.75 to $5.50 per page. Private reporters earn $6 and up. By contrast, Broward court reporters earn roughly $2.75 per page. It has been “unbelievably difficult to get people to work for those wages,” said Jennifer Gaul, general manager of Esquire Deposition Services Inc. Adds chief assistant public defender Bob Wills, “We have had to go and scramble for alternative firms — any firm that’ll come and work for us.” With few backups to relieve them, Broward reporters spend most of their days typing in court, with little or no downtime to transcribe their notes, even though those notes are key documents during an appeal. “The reality is that almost every individual convicted of a crime is given an opportunity to appeal,” said Circuit Judge Paul Backman, administrative judge of the Circuit Court criminal division. “When you consider that in Broward County we try just under 1,000 cases a year, that’s a significant amount of appeals.” To avoid further tying up of the appeals process with late and incomplete transcripts, Chief Judge Dale Ross in July ordered a panel, including Backman, to review the county’s court reporting services. The panel concluded that to reduce the transcript backlog, they had to hire more court reporters and attract them by boosting the per-page rates they are paid. The panel agreed to boost the per-page pay rate to $4.75. The raise takes effect later this month when the county awards a three-year contract for court reporting services. Backman said he hopes the raise will attract new hires. But pay isn’t the only factor impacting the labor shortage. Not helping matters is that two of Broward County’s large firms failed to bid for the new contract. And only three reporting services have submitted bids for the new contract. In the running are Official Reporting Service Inc., based in Fort Lauderdale, and Troiana Laws & Associates and Capitol Reporting, both in Miami. Three years ago, when the county awarded its first contract, there were at least eight bidders. The reduction in bidders is partly attributable to consolidation. Esquire, one of the bigger agencies, bought out several smaller agencies in recent years. And Esquire is one of two large agencies that didn’t bid for the county contract. Another is Williams & Hahn Inc., which bowed out of the bidding process while its two name partners worked out a painful and messy dissolution. Gaul, who recently became general manager at Esquire, said her predecessor had opted not to pursue the new contract because the per-page pay rates at the time of bid submissions had not been increased. By the time Gaul reviewed the enhanced contract terms, Esquire had missed the deadline for submitting a letter of intent — by one day. The county refused to let Esquire submit a late bid. “I just handed a ton of money on a silver platter to two firms in Miami and a competitor in Fort Lauderdale,” Gaul said. Meanwhile, Gaul said Esquire’s absence in the bidding has fueled false rumors that the firm was in the red or enduring some internal strife. “We are not bankrupt, we are not insolvent,” she said. “This has nothing to do with finance.” Among those not sure the increase in rate will make much of a difference is Marshall Williams, who was president of the now-dissolved Williams & Hahn. He said the increased money, though sorely needed, may be too little, too late. Years of substandard wages have tagged Broward County as a bad work place. Simply bringing the per page rate up to snuff won’t cause a stampede of new applicants, Williams predicted. “I think it’s going to take an appreciable period of time before we can attract good reporters back to Broward County,” Williams said, “and I think that’s been borne out by the fact that so few providers even submitted a letter of interest when the contract negotiations started.” Others are more optimistic. Paula Laws, owner/president of Troiana Laws & Associates, applauded Backman and his peers for producing a better contract for the county. She said the new deal was carefully assembled and must be given a chance to succeed or fail. “I haven’t seen anybody do anything,” she says, “except to try to make this work.”

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