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06-28-2007, 12:37 PM
Sheriffs don't make much money handing out tickets

By Jack Gurney
One of the long-held myths about sheriffs in Florida and other Deep South states is they hide their road deputies in cruisers behind billboards and collect wads of traffic ticket money from unsuspecting motorists. It's only true in the movies.

Even if Sarasota County Sheriff Bill Balkwill wanted to pump some extra bucks into his budget with beefed up traffic enforcement, it wouldn't be worth the investment in time or effort. "We only get $5 from every ticket," he said. "Our operating revenue comes from property taxes."

There's the rub. Now that state lawmakers have mandated property tax cuts, and local officials have powered up their pocket calculators to consider budget cuts, it would be convenient if constitutional officers such as the sheriff could raise some money on their own.

"Florida law allows us to receive $5 out of every ticket we issue for training," Balkwill said. "We wrote 10,070 tickets between January and April of this year, which might have raised enough to pay one deputy's salary and benefits."

Sheriffs are state constitutional officers. They operate under a different set of rules than local police chiefs who work for municipalities. There are Florida cities with a well-earned reputation for generating revenue through the issuance of traffic citations, such as North Port.

Balkwill's current budget of $87 million sounds like a lot, but when $20 million is carved out for jail operations and 86 percent of the balance goes to salaries and benefits, it doesn't leave much room for cuts. But that's what will be discussed in the days ahead.

County commissioners have to fund the sheriff's department under state law. If Balkwill determines he hasn't received enough money to provide adequate public safety services, he has a constitutional right to appeal his case to the governor and cabinet.

Former Sheriff Jim Hardcastle used the appeal threat several times to extract more money from the county commission, but the tactic has not been employed in recent years. Given the legislature's property tax cuts, it's a good bet that sheriffs in all 67 Florida counties will review the option.

"We could bring in federal prisoners and make a little money if there was room at the jail, but there isn't," Balkwill said. "We can charge the school board half the cost for resource officers, and get back some drug forfeitures from the court, but that doesn't add up to much."

In recent years, several county commissioners have lobbied for automated traffic cameras to discourage red light runners and slow down bad drivers. They are widely used in 23 states to issue tickets, but state law prohibits the installation of them.

Several communities have discovered loopholes in the law and installed them anyway, but the county has deferred to its attorneys and decided not to take a chance. Time will tell whether the money crunch inflicted by state lawmakers changes some minds.