Southwest Crime Stoppers dealing with budget shortfall
Tipsters who call Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers can expect a smaller reward than in previous years as the organization battles a funding cut of about 40 percent.
Crime Stoppers received $259,615 in grant money from the state at the start of the fiscal year, which began in October. Trish Routte, coordinator for the program, said the group received more than $400,000 in funds the previous year, which translates into a budget cut of about 40 percent.
“Long story short, the state Legislature had raided $3.5 million out of the Crime Stoppers trust fund, where all the state programs get their funding,” she said. “We were not informed of this until the start of this fiscal year.
“They had done it in January, and it took until Oct. 14 until we were made aware of that,” Routte said. “Two weeks into the fiscal year.”
To stay afloat on a budget nearly cut in half, Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers has ceased all advertising and public relation campaigns. Routte said cash rewards for information have been “scaled back.” For example, a $300 reward would now pay $200.
Of the more than $400,000 in grant funds received the previous year, the group handed out about $170,000 in rewards, she said. People can call Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers at (800) 780-TIPS (8477) with information about an incident or crime and be eligible for a reward if an arrest is made.
Callers remain anonymous.
“No matter what, we’ve got to pay out these rewards because that’s priority one,” she said. “Without the money to pay the tipsters, we’re nowhere.”
Routte added that only fixed expenses, like operating the call center and telephone lines, remain untouched because Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers has no control over those budget items.
“We are bare bones, at the absolute minimum,” she said.
Connie Barron, spokeswoman for the Cape Coral Police Department, said the program has proven to be valuable resource over the years.
“Crime Stoppers is an important service to our agency, and we appreciate their assistance and support,” she said. “We have received valuable tips that have led to the arrest of several subjects who might not have been captured if not for the Crime Stoppers program.”
Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott explained that the funding cut to the Crime Stoppers program is a concern across the state. He said the anonymous tips continue to be a source for making arrests in connection to crimes, and the reward is typically an incentive for people to call in and report information.
“It’s just one of many tools to help us,” Scott said. “With the money drying up, it’s a great concern.”
According to Routte, Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers plans to hold fund-raisers to help replenish the missing grant money. In an attempt to generate some funds, the annual softball tournament will be held May 8. The game involves the State Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement agencies.
“We’re really starting to think outside of the box,” Routte said. “At this point, we’re doing everything that we can. We’re open to any and all suggestions.”
Routte does not expect Crime Stoppers to get the $3.5 million back from the state.
“With all the things going on, we’re not holding out breath,” she said.
Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers had planned to alert the public to the situation and “rally public support,” but officials are waiting to see what state lawmakers do.
“We’ve been told by the state association there are some legislators in both the House and the Senate that are going to sponsor legislation (to protect the Crime Stoppers fund against) future raids,” Routte said.
“We were going to do a big thing this week letting the public know what was going on,” she said, “but we’re going to give the Legislature time to do what they are going to do.”
According to Routte, the Crime Stoppers trust fund comes from a $20 fine assessed at a person’s sentencing after he or she is convicted of a crime. About $16 of each fine goes toward the fund, while the remaining dollars go to the state, clerk of courts and such.
“I don’t know how severe that impact will be, we don’t know what the trickle down will be, but we’re trying to put into place some things to ensure that we can stay afloat,” she said. “It’s kind of like living paycheck to paycheck.”
Scott said there needs to be a focus on local judges assessing the fine at the time of sentencing.
“Then following up, making sure those fees are being collected so that moving forward we can try to renourish or, at the very least, sustain the program,” he said.
Scott added that crime is down, which translates into less arrests and a decrease in assessed fines, so there are several elements factoring into the situation that Crime Stoppers is facing
“There are a lot of things at play here that are driving this,” he said. “We need to make sure that we can recapture where we were and move forward.”
Southwest Florida Crime Stoppers encompasses five counties including Lee, Collier, Charlotte, Hendry and Glades. For more information or to report a tip online, visit: www.swflcrimestoppers.org.