Higher traffic fines bring in big bucks
Lee County collected more than $80,000 in additional revenue during December for the courts system thanks to a recent hike in the cost of traffic fines.
In 2004, Florida statutes authorized counties to impose a $15 fee on non-criminal traffic infractions for the purpose of funding state court facilities, according to county documents. The statutes were recently amended to permit the collected fee to increase to $30.
On Nov. 24 the Lee County Board of County Commissioners voted 3-2 to approve an ordinance that permits the county to collect $30 from each non-criminal traffic infraction and some criminal violations, an increase of $15 — the maximum allowed by the state — from what the county had been collecting since 2004.
“County commissioners approved an increase toward the baseline by $15,” said Theresa Dahlberg of the Lee County Clerk of Courts.
Seat belt infractions now cost $109, and red light runners face a $224 fine. Speeding tickets now start at $124, while those who are caught speeding in a school or construction zone face a fine of $149 or more. Unknowingly driving on a suspended license will cost a motorist $156.
Dahlberg added that all of the $30 collected goes back to Lee County.
“It’s county money,” she said.
There were 5,504 traffic citations issued from Dec. 1-30, according to Patrick Long, a business analyst with the Lee County Clerk of Courts’ Criminal Division. That equals an extra $82,560 collected on those traffic fines because of the $15 hike.
Lee County Commissioner Tammy Hall voted in favor of the increase in November. She explained that the county is required to make sure that the courts have their operating budget, and that the fee helps guarantee that those who are using the system are paying to keep it operational.
“We’re trying to make the system cost neutral for the public,” Hall said. “So people who are creating the costs for the courts are paying for the courts.”
She said there is a whole process involved when someone receives a citation.
“Why should someone who’s not breaking the law have to pay for you?” Hall asked. “What’s fair is for the increases not to be on the backs of people who are not violating the law.”
She added that a 24-month sunset clause tied to the ordinance enables commissioners to review the $15 increase after two years. If the county is collecting an excess of revenue from the hike, the board can roll back or adjust the amount of the increase appropriately.
Lee County Commissioner Brian Bigelow, who voted against the increase along with Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann, explained that he would have voted in favor of the hike, but that he did not because of how the sunset clause works.
According to Bigelow, the ordinance does not call for an automatic review of the increase after the two years are over. Commissioners would not have an opportunity to take action, such as scaling back the increase because of an excess of collected funds, unless the matter is brought forward by a county staffer or official.
Bigelow also wanted the collected funds to go toward a designated project. He said that he believes that the monies are for the long-term maintenance of the Lee County Justice Center in downtown Fort Myers.
“I wanted to be sure that if we’re going to levy this additional increase, it is put toward a specific purpose,” Bigelow said. “That we’re not just taking money because we can.”
The Florida statutes also give each county or municipality the authority to charge an additional $2 for “law enforcement education,” according to Long.
Fort Myers is the only jurisdiction in Lee County that is collecting that, so citations issued in Fort Myers will have an extra $2 added on to the fine.