Rosemary Smith saw the motorcycle cop's flashing lights behind her, and her eyes immediately started to well up.
She was going 17 mph over the speed limit and faced a $256 fine, the officer told her after she pulled into a parking lot off Fourth Street N.
As she fought back tears, her life story spilled out. She was a full-time college student, her only income from part-time work as a bank teller. She had a wedding coming up in November.
"I've got house bills to pay," said Smith, 21, visibly shaken as she clutched the wheel of her blue Saturn. "I'm freaking out."
Motorists complaining about tickets is nothing new for traffic cops. But officers say they are sensing growing distress.
"A day doesn't go by when I don't see someone cry," said Officer Mauricio Steffek. "They can't believe how much the ticket costs. They'll tell me, 'Give me a break. I don't have a job now. I'm falling behind the mortgage or car payments.' "
Once a minor, if stressful, inconvenience, the everyday traffic citation is becoming a life altering breaking point for many.
And more and more, drivers aren't paying them — creating a ripple effect in city and county budgets across Tampa Bay.
In St. Petersburg, the money collected from traffic tickets has dropped from $681,000 in 2008 to $494,214 in 2010. It's projected to dwindle even further this year — despite the fact that police handed out 1,500 more tickets last year than they did in 2008.
"It's a drastic drop that means we have to find revenue from other places," said Tim Finch, St. Petersburg's director of budget and management. "It makes it tougher on other departments."
Pinellas County has seen its ticket revenue fall by $700,000 in two years. In Tampa, police estimate they will bring in $900,000 less than they did in 2008. In Hillsborough, fine collections are down nearly $3 million since 2008.
"It's directly related to the economy," said Hillsborough Clerk of Courts Pat Frank. "People are being more cautious because they can't afford it. And police officers are more reluctant to give out tickets when the fines are more costly."
In recent years, Florida's tax adverse politicians have raised fees to generate new revenue. Traffic law-flouting motorists are a tempting target because they don't garner public sympathy.
State lawmakers in 2009 approved new measures to produce more than $63 million, all from the pockets of wayward motorists. Included: a new $10 charge on all traffic infractions, cutting an 18 percent discount for attending traffic school, and a $25 increase for exceeding the speed limit by 15 to 29 mph.
Local governments tack on more charges. In Pinellas County, for instance, each citation can get assessed an extra $30 for court costs; $3 for driver education safety programs; $3 for teen court; and $2 to pay for public safety applicant screenings.
Tickets range from $62 for a bicycle infraction to $456 for traveling 20 to 29 mph over the limit in a school or construction zone. If a driver is hit with multiple violations, such as speeding, not wearing a seat belt and having an expired tag, fines can climb to nearly $700.
In times like these, a ticket can be a severe blow to those living paycheck to paycheck.
Officers have the discretion to waive the ticket if they think the driver would be better served with a warning. Traffic cops like to say it's about public safety, not the money.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Steffek listened to Smith's tale of woe. He called up her driving history. Clean. He decided to waive the fine.
"It would have been hard for me to pay," said Smith, grateful and smiling.
As she drove away, Steffek said he had imagined himself in her predicament.
"She was shaking really bad," he said. "She was scared."
• • •
Pain felt by drivers is so evident their biggest supporters are often the cops who stop them.
"Our deputies feel that because of the way the economy is, they give out a lot more warnings," said Detective Larry McKinnon, Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman.
Same with Pinellas.
"We're very aware of some of the cost," said spokeswoman Marianne Pasha. "If there is an opportunity to write a warning, rather than write a citation, that's what we'll do."
In many cases, deputies won't write multiple citations like they did in the past. If someone with a clean driving record is caught speeding without wearing a seat belt, McKinnon said, they'll be cited for a seat belt violation.
"We're more tolerant," he said. "People have lost their jobs and are struggling. A lot of times you'll see families in the car. How do you write someone a $700 ticket when they have a carload of kids?"
Empathy comes with a price.
Pinellas is on track to write 2,000 fewer tickets than it did two years ago. Hillsborough tickets dropped by 40,000 from 2008 to 2010. Not all of that stemmed from deputies waiving tickets, McKinnon said.
The other reason also is economic: There are fewer deputies out there writing tickets.
In St. Petersburg, police are handing out more tickets than ever, but fewer people are paying, said Lt. William Korinek, who oversees traffic enforcement.
"People are saying that the tickets are too expensive," Korinek said. "For the most part, they're not criminals. They're people like you and me, average people going about their day. "
On a recent Tuesday, Chris Robinson, a retired 64-year-old, was running errands when he was stopped for speeding.
He was going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone. The fine: $206.
"I can't pay it," Robinson said as his shoulders sagged and he cradled his face in his hand. "I'm on a fixed income. It's going to kill me."
Fined drivers can pay the full sum within 30 days, or spread the fine out in six monthly installments.
An increasingly popular option: People can work off the debt with community service.
"Economic conditions are driving that," said Hazel Bure, director of the court and operational services at the Pinellas County Clerk of Court. "The traffic fines are very high."
Drivers calculate the hours they need to work for a nonprofit by dividing the fine by the $7.25 hourly minimum wage. A $206 fine would be almost 29 hours. The fine isn't waived until the courts get a verification letter from the nonprofit.
The option is a boon to groups like Habitat for Humanity. Since 2008, the nonprofit has seen the number of people volunteering to pay off tickets double to about 12 a week, said Kevin Klucas, the group's volunteer coordinator.
"It works well for us, and hopefully becomes a good experience for them, too," Klucas said.
While some turn the experience into a productive one, officials say others let a ticket disrupt their lives. If a fine isn't paid, a motorist's driver's license is suspended, a misdemeanor that can mean going to jail. The state doesn't track the number of suspended licenses, but some law enforcement officers say there has been a rise.
A look at Pinellas County jail records show that more than 7,000 people were processed for that charge since 2005.
The majority of those were people arrested on the charge for the second or third time.
• • •
During rush hour last week, Steffek and fellow St. Petersburg Officer Chris Dort stopped more than a dozen drivers in two hours. Nearly everyone fretted about the fine.
"I work hard and make just enough to pay my bills," said Bob Samples, a 47-year-old restaurant worker facing a $206 speeding ticket. John Zurek was looking at $256 for going 17 mph over the limit. A 20-year-old St. Petersburg College student who recently quit his job at a sandwich shop, Zurek said he didn't know where he'd get the money.
Whatever strain motorists are feeling, it may only get worse.
St. Petersburg officials are installing red light cameras to catch offenders and will likely start handing out $158 tickets this summer. Hillsborough County already does. Tampa soon will.
"I feel bad for some of these drivers," Dort said. "People are busy. They're running around, trying to make ends meet. It's real rough out there."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]