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Cities balk at plan to raise ticket fees

The clerk of court's office wants to charge municipalities more to process their parking fines. It could be as high as $10 a ticket.

By AARON SHAROCKMAN
Published January 2, 2005


The agency that processes most of Pinellas County's parking fines may double its service charge, an increase that could siphon profits from the cities where the tickets were written.

The Pinellas County Clerk of the Circuit Court's office has not yet decided how much it will raise per-ticket processing costs, and a final decision will likely be left for incoming clerk Ken Burke.

But the office may raise rates as high as $10 per ticket, according to county officials, well above the current rate of about $4.

And at least two Pinellas cities, Clearwater and St. Pete Beach, are already preparing to pull out of the program and collect tickets on their own.

Officials in those cities think the costs have run too high.

The clerk's office said the increase would generate additional revenue for the cash-strapped agency. The office is subsidized by state revenues and does not receive funding from the county for court operations.

"We've been authorized to charge $10 per parking ticket," said Carol Heath, the clerk's court services division director. "It would help us."

Except for St. Petersburg, municipalities process their parking tickets through the clerk's office. For years, the office charged a nominal fee, between $1 and $2 per ticket, to offset personnel, summons and data processing costs, said Tracey Bruch, Clearwater's parking operations manager.

But recently, the clerk's office began charging actual processing costs. Each month, municipalities receive a spreadsheet documenting the number of tickets issued and the costs incurred.

In October, Clearwater, which writes the most tickets by far, filed 3,877 tickets for fines totaling $67,021. Of that, the clerk's office kept $15,812.27, or $4.08 for every ticket.

In Safety Harbor, where only two tickets were issued for a total of $40, the clerk's office held back $8.61. In Madeira Beach, the clerk's office charged $4.11 for each of the 603 tickets issued.

Now the clerk's office is considering charging up to $10 per ticket, like it does for other ordinance violations.

Bruch said the increase is too large for Clearwater, which hopes to pull out of the clerk's program and contract a third-party collection service by the middle of next year.

"It would definitely be a high impact," Bruch said.

Clearwater's basic parking ticket is $15, and with $5 already allocated to the city's school crossing guard program, a $10 service charge would wipe out any profit for the self-supporting operation, Bruch said.

"We potentially would be running a deficit," she said. "The city feels it would be more cost effective through private sector firms."

The city of St. Pete Beach has signed a contract to run its collection service through Citation Management, a Wisconsin company that operates parking collections in several cities, including Milwaukee.

Phil Thorn, the administrative services supervisor with the St. Pete Beach Police Department, said the city hopes to divorce itself from the clerk's office in February.

Citation Management will charge $3.36 per ticket as part of the deal, a significant cost savings, Thorn said.

"The county has been somewhat inching up their costs," Thorn said. "We needed to look at other options."

St. Pete Beach writes about 8,000 parking tickets each year, Thorn said, most of them are for $20 each.

Together with Clearwater, the two municipalities comprise about 75 percent of all parking tickets the clerk's office processes.

Heath, court services division director for the clerk's office, said the pull outs would not cripple the office.

"It would not be a loss," she said.

Burke said he will not fight to keep municipalities in the program. He expects processing costs to rise in 2005, but not as high as $10 per ticket.

"The important thing is if the clerk does it, we recover our costs," Burke said. "It's not suppose to be a profit center and we don't want to be.

"If each city wants to do it themselves, that's fine with me."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 445-4160 or asharockman@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 1, 2005, 23:55:18]


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