Cities lose out on DUI revenue

Money from criminal traffic cases now goes to the county. Tampa lost almost $1-million.

Published December 9, 2005

The money stopped coming more than a year ago, but many Florida cities are just figuring it out.

Tens of millions of dollars in fines from DUI and criminal traffic cases that once went to cities and towns go to county clerks instead. It's a result of 2004 legislation that put the state in charge of running Florida's courts.

Now cities are struggling with the impact.

The cuts have surprised city leaders who believed the changes would not burden municipal budgets. Revenue from those fines has fallen 16 to 45 percent, cities report. Tampa lost $950,000 last year alone, according to the Florida League of Cities.

The significant losses have prompted some city officials to question whether expensive and time-consuming DUI patrols can continue as a high priority without revenue to pay for them.

"In theory, we are going to still enforce DUI laws, but it does send a message that maybe it's not as important," said Clearwater City Council member Bill Jonson.

The League of Cities said it plans to ask legislators to amend the law this spring so the money returns to local governments. It believes the cuts were an unintended result of the legislation.

But county clerks and the architect of the law, gubernatorial hopeful state Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, said Thursday the cuts to the cities were intentional and necessary. Without clerks getting that money to pay for court operations, fines and court fees may have to rise again, Smith said.

DUI enforcement should remain a priority, not because it's profitable, but because it's important, they say.

The League of Cities concedes the money may be lost, said its legal counsel, Kraig Conn.

"It's going to be a difficult row to hoe to break those revenues free," he said.

The League of Cities doesn't know how many cities have been affected, but it's not all of them.

Some smaller Florida cities may still not know they've lost revenue because the losses are small enough or are offset by increased civil traffic enforcement, Conn said.

Other municipalities may have lost nothing in the first place. That's because clerks in those counties had previously interpreted the old law differently and withheld the revenues, Conn said.

St. Petersburg discovered its losses late this summer. Fine revenues were off $260,000, or 16 percent, said Michael Connors, internal services administrator.

In Clearwater, fine losses were nearly $370,000, a 45 percent decrease. City auditor Robin Gomez found the discrepancy early and believed it was a glitch. He still does.

"That wasn't the intent of the change," Gomez said. "I'm not actually sure what's happened. It all seems a little odd to me."

The changes stem from a 1998 voter-approved constitutional amendment that made trial courts the state's responsibility.

Cities were told their revenues would not be slashed to help pay to run the courts, Conn said. But the 2004 law is explicit: All criminal traffic fines are kept by local clerks of the circuit court.

"Criminal traffic fines were always intended to be transferred over to the clerk," said Dale Bohner, legal counsel for Hillsborough Clerk Pat Frank. Bohner has already told Tampa as much.

In Pasco County, the clerk's office is laboring to make ends meet, said Barbara Rulison, clerk administrative services director. It needed a bailout from a statewide trust to remain solvent, Rulison said.

"We are at a bare-bones minimum operation," she said. "I understand the cities' position, but the law I believe is clear. Any change would be taking money away from our operations."

Smith said court systems in some counties, even with the criminal traffic fines, aren't breaking even. He's reluctant to raise court fees higher because some people couldn't afford it. Cities still receive portions of civil traffic fines, like parking and speeding tickets.

"We had to come up a with a revenue-sharing plan," said Smith. Counties and cities pushed the constitutional amendment that restructured the court system in the first place, Smith said.

"Some of the local division of funds is not going to happen at the local level," Smith said. "That's the tradeoff."

Without the money, some police agencies may no longer be able to sustain targeted full-time DUI patrols, said Sgt. Robert Wierzba, head of Clearwater's nine-member traffic enforcement team. He's already heard of Florida agencies rolling their traffic units into regular operations.

"And it's all because of funding," Wierzba said.

DUI enforcement "takes so much time, so much money, to get nothing in return from it. That's tough," he said.

DUI cases are among the most difficult police investigations, Wierzba said. This month, for instance, the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office will challenge the accuracy of the machines that test the blood-alcohol count of suspected drunken drivers.

An average DUI arrest takes three officer hours. Clearwater police made 580 DUI arrests in 2004. Fines in DUI cases can range from $250 to $2,000. Court-assessed costs can double what offenders have to pay.

Covering the costs of a full-time DUI unit without that revenue means less money for other city operations, officials say.

Hillsborough clerk Pat Frank said revenue should not determine the response to DUI enforcement.

"I would hope they wouldn't minimize the importance of DUI based on how much revenue they get," Frank said. "It should be about the seriousness of the crime."

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report.