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Parkway tolls irk animal controllers

When they're called on to remove an animal from traffic lanes, why should they have to stop and pay tolls, they ask?

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 5, 2002


When building the Suncoast Parkway, the Florida Turnpike District put tall fences along the sides, in part to prevent deer and other animals from getting in the way of traffic.

Despite the effort, dogs and other creatures occasionally have strayed onto the roadway. With no employees qualified to trap and remove live animals, the district has turned to local animal control departments.

It also has required them to pay the tolls of 25 cents or $1. And that has Hernando and Pasco county officials irked.

"We are not there for the purpose of traveling from one location to another," complained Frank McDowell III, who oversees the Hernando County Animal Services and Code Enforcement departments. "We are there to provide a service."

Denise Hilton, Pasco Animal Control manager, noted that animals have no concern for toll plazas, and they might pass by several times. That could force a responding officer to pay several tolls, whether he has the cash or not, she said.

"My original thought was, they're asking us to come for service. They should waive the fees," Hilton said.

When the county approached parkway officials with the concern, though, the response was a flat "forget it."

"Per Florida statute, the turnpike tolls cannot be waived selectively. There are some very explicit ways they can waive the fees," said Joanne Hurley, community relations coordinator for the Suncoast Parkway and Veterans Expressway.

The law states clearly who can go through a toll plaza without paying. They include Turnpike District employees on official state business, state military personnel on official military business, law enforcement officers in marked vehicles on official law enforcement business, anyone operating a fire or rescue vehicle on official business, and people with handicaps who meet specific criteria.

"I can understand that they don't want to pay the toll, but at the same time live animals are a hazard to the motorists and a hazard to the workers, so we leave that to the experts," Hurley said. "While I sympathize with their reluctance to pay the toll, it's a very small toll indeed."

Hilton set up a petty cash fund for her department to use on tolls. Filling out reimbursement paperwork proved too time consuming, she said, and buying a SunPass automatic payment device cost too much, considering the department has been called to the toll road only a couple of dozen times since it opened.

McDowell agreed that the amount at stake is minuscule. His department has responded to only a few loose animal calls on the Suncoast since it opened a year ago.

"It's not that a quarter is a lot of money," he said. "It's the principle."

Hernando commissioners see his point.

"It's totally ridiculous," Commissioner Diane Rowden said. "Why would they even consider charging us to go out on the parkway? Do they charge ambulances to go out there and pick up people? This is an emergency."

Just think what might happen if a rabid animal approached a motorist changing a tire by the side of the road, Hernando commission chairwoman Nancy Robinson said. The Animal Services officer should be able to get to the scene quickly, Robinson said, and without worrying whether he has change to pay the toll.

"We need to take this to the proper channels, and see if they come under active duty," she said. "If not, we need to ask for that."

State Rep. David Russell, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said this complaint is not unique to animal control agencies.

"It's any agency that's got someone who isn't driving a marked vehicle," said Russell, R-Brooksville. "It's something we looked into awhile back with unmarked patrol cars."

The Polk County Sheriff's Office brought the issue to lawmakers' attention shortly after the Polk Parkway opened.

"To me, this borders on the ridiculous," said Col. Grady Judd, head of administrative services for the Sheriff's Office. "Our marked cars obviously can patrol the roadways without paying the toll. But their lieutenant, who drives an unmarked car . . . has to pay to patrol or go out and supervise deputies."

The upshot, Judd said, is that taxpayers pay extra to have the toll road patrolled. From September 2000 through September 2001, the department paid $19,970 in tolls, he said.

"I think that's outrageous," Judd said.

Christa Deason, spokeswoman for the Polk Parkway, said the Turnpike District will issue "non-revenue cards," which allow passage without payment, to any marked or unmarked patrol car. Deason said the Sheriff's Office has made the decision not to issue them to unmarked cars.

"All they have to do is request them," she said.

But Russell suggested that the notion of having one government entity pay another to use the toll road made little sense.

"What you're doing is robbing Peter to pay Paul," he said. "(Change) is something that is coming because more and more government agencies are using the toll roads. . . . We'll broaden it. And I know just the guy who might be able to pull it off."

If the rule remains intact, Hernando Commissioner Betty Whitehouse said, perhaps the local governments should take a different approach.

"I really think if they want us to come pick up the animals, they ought to let us come out for nothing," she said, "or else we need to charge them substantially for doing it."

-- Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solochek@sptimes.com.

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