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    Specialty plate revenue doesn't always reach its cause

    A program audit finds sales money used for other purposes and a decrease in tag demand.

    By CRAIG PITTMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 5, 2000


    Over the past 13 years, the state has created 50 specialty license plates to raise money for popular causes -- from preserving the Florida panther to saving the manatee to preventing juvenile delinquency.

    But the first audit of the specialty plate program has turned up a host of problems, including a discovery that millions of dollars from some tag sales went to other than the intended causes.

    The most surprising finding by the state Auditor General's Office, though, calls into question the underlying purpose of the specialty plate program.

    The audit, released last week, found that as the Legislature has issued more and more specialty plates over the past few years, the demand for those plates has not increased. Instead the auditors found that "as the number of plates has grown, the percentage of people buying them has decreased," audit manager David Westberry said Monday.

    In fact, the audit suggested, some of the state's 50 specialty plates are selling so poorly they should be discontinued, including plates touting the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Tampa Bay Lightning and the Tampa Bay Storm, as well as the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts.

    Among the other findings of the 12-page report:

    The state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission spent more than $1-million from sales of the panther plates on things that were not clearly related to panthers, including a registration fee for a lobbyist, corn for a deer survey and office equipment.

    "There were some unusual things that were in there," Westberry said. "It's okay to buy a file cabinet from the panther fund, but not for a guy sitting in an office in North Florida where there are no panthers."

    The state Department of Environmental Protection used $50,000 from the sale of manatee plates to cover overspending in another program that had nothing to do with manatees.

    The state Department of Juvenile Justice collected more than $1-million in money from Invest in Children plates that it then failed to send to county juvenile delinquency prevention programs. The department collected another $250,000 in interest on that money, which it also failed to distribute to the prevention programs.

    "That's a pretty good sum of money that hadn't gotten back to these programs," Westberry said.

    Every time the Legislature approves creating another specialty plate it cuts into the dwindling customer base for the already existing plates, the auditors found. For instance, someone who might have bought one of the older plates that raises money for manatee preservation instead buys a newer one touting the Tampa Bay Estuary program.

    "You're not creating a new revenue source," Westberry said. "You're stealing from another revenue source."

    When there were 30 specialty plates in 1994, nearly 12 percent of all motorists bought them. Last year, when there were 45, about 10.5 percent of all motorists paid the extra fees to get one.

    By law, any plate that does not find at least 8,000 customers within five years can be discontinued. The Storm and the Lightning hit that five-year cutoff in October, the auditors said.

    The Devil Rays -- only halfway to 8,000 plates now -- could be in trouble next fall. The Rays' cross-state rivals, the Florida Marlins, have also fallen short of the minimum sales, despite winning the World Series three years ago. The Storm plate may be the worst-selling specialty tag, not counting all the plates touting various colleges that are exempt from the 8,000-customer rule. The auditors found that over five years, only 593 plates featuring Tampa Bay's arena football team have been sold.

    Florida's more successful arena football team, the Orlando Predators, are not doing much better. Even though the team won the Arena Bowl this year, Predator tags sell so poorly that every county in Florida reported that they have a two-year supply gathering dust.

    That's a sign of the dysfunctional relationship between the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which makes and distributes the tags, and the 67 county tax-collector offices, which actually sell them. The state agency has shipped far more of some tags than are likely to be sold.

    Meanwhile a computer glitch within the state tag agency has turned it into an inadvertent miser. Over the past year the state agency has taken in more than $13-million in specialty-plate fees from the 67 counties but handed out only $12-million to the various causes that the tags are supposed to support.

    "They're basically sitting on $1-million," Westberry said.

    The auditors even raised questions about how some specialty plates were created. State law requires that before a plate can be submitted to the Legislature, backers must collect the signatures of 10,000 car owners. But the auditors' review of four petitions that led to the creation of tags -- including the one for the Tampa Bay Estuary program -- featured "identical handwriting . . . on numerous entries and, in many instances, the same address appeared numerous times." Most of the signers did not appear to have a driver's license or own a car, the auditors found.

    The audit was spurred by repeated complaints last year about the most popular of the 50 specialty plates: the Florida panther tag.

    A small animal rights group, Sarasota In Defense of Animals, complained that the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission was misspending panther plate money on things that had nothing to do with the endangered cat, even though state law requires at least 85 percent of the tag-sale profits be spent on panther-related programs. Meanwhile, the organization contended, programs that would benefit the panther have gone begging.

    When the St. Petersburg Times reported the complaints, commission executive director Allan Egbert dismissed them as unfounded. He said the Legislature had approved all of the commission's expenditures from the panther plate money and "the Legislature can appropriate money any way they want."

    Westberry compared that line of reasoning to saying: "The Devil made me do it." Even though the Legislature approves the agency's budget, the auditors decided "it is the commission's responsibility to ensure that the expenditures made from those plates meets the statutory requirements," Westberry said.

    Egbert could not be reached for comment Monday. In a written response to the audit, assistant director Victor Heller blamed some of the problems on "accounting oversight," but he added that the commission "now recognizes that it is incumbent on the agency to justify how expenditures meet current statutory requirements."

    Heller wrote that the commission "will immediately correct the errors and omissions in the documentation process and take steps to prevent any spending from the trust fund which cannot be adequately supported."

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