TALLAHASSEE -- With Florida accounting for one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country and legislators showing little interest in addressing the crisis, a handful of judges are exploring ways to keep borrowers and lenders out of an increasingly congested court system.
''It's very frustrating to recognize that consistently over the last three years we've sustained budget cutbacks and staff reductions in the court system and this tsunami has hit with foreclosures,'' said Treasure Coast Circuit Judge Burton Conner, whose circuit covers Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River and Okeechobee counties.
That circuit has begun requiring borrowers and lenders to meet before their first court appearances, leading to many cases settling.
But action from Tallahassee has been limited, even with almost 11 percent of all mortgages in Florida in foreclosure -- the highest rate in the country, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association. Foreclosures in Florida dropped from April to May but were still up 50 percent from the same time last year, according to numbers RealtyTrac released Thursday.
During the Legislature's spring session, which ended last month, lawmakers introduced 15 bills to address foreclosure issues. But 10 bills never received a hearing, including several that would have required mediation between lenders and borrowers. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates that one in three Florida homeowners facing foreclosure could stay in their homes with mediation.
Instead, lawmakers approved just two foreclosure-related bills: one to comply with new minimum federal regulations for lenders, and another to increase court costs for foreclosure cases from $300 to $1,900.
The state ''should have done more,'' said state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat running for governor.
Sink pointed to the state Financial Regulation Office's failure to regulate mortgage lenders, a problem that allowed thousands of people with criminal records into the industry. The office's chief resigned in August after the problems were reported by The Miami Herald, but a replacement still has not been hired.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, a Republican also running for governor, called the foreclosure crisis a ''very tough issue'' that his office had tried to address by cracking down on fraud. But he said options for helping homeowners were limited.
''It is not something you can pump money out to avoid foreclosures,'' he said. ``We don't have the resources to do that. There is no bailout in the state of Florida.''
Gov. Charlie Crist noted the rise in foreclosures in his State of the State speeches in 2008 and this year. But he has not included specific foreclosure-related bills among his legislative priorities.
''We want to do all we can to help people,'' Crist said when asked about the state's responsibility to address foreclosures. ``It's a tough time right now.''
Crist named a foreclosure task force in February 2008, including elected officials and people from the banking and real estate industries. But the panel put out a report with just one recommendation to the Legislature: to increase protections for people with subprime loans.
Lawmakers did not adopt it.
''There is just not an inclination to give the light of day to any of these foreclosure remedies,'' said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, whose ''Foreclosure Bill of Rights'' would have delayed payments for many homeowners.
McCollum, who created a Mortgage Fraud Task Force in 2007, said homeowners facing foreclosure need to be more proactive with their lenders. ''In many cases the lender can and will work this out,'' he said.
States including Ohio and New Jersey have implemented aggressive programs to require mediation between bankers and lenders. In Tallahassee, two Leon County Circuit Court judges proposed in December to the state's 20 chief judges to create similar mediation programs. Three of the state's 20 judicial circuits have enlisted nonprofit Collins Center for Public Policy to offer mediation.
The first such program arose in the Treasure Coast's 19th Circuit, where borrowers and lenders are required to meet before their first court appearance. In the past month, 22 of the first 31 mediated foreclosure cases in the circuit were settled with renegotiated loans.
In Palm Beach County, Chief Circuit Judge Kathleen Kroll signed an order to require banks to consider revising a loan at the homeowner's request. The court receives an average of 500 new foreclosures each week.
Last week, the courts in Palm Beach County began a service to make attorneys and law school interns available to walk homeowners through the paperwork. On Thursday, the first day the information sessions were available, 26 of 142 eligible homeowners attended. ''We want to at least have some contact with these people so they're not deer in headlights,'' Palm Beach County court general counsel Amy Borman said. ``We want to help.''