NEW PORT RICHEY — In these lean economic times, Sheriff Bob White has identified a new source of revenue: Pasco's criminals.
The sheriff, who will release his annual budget request today, plans to start charging fees to recover the cost of deputies' time spent investigating crimes. And the people paying the fees will be the ones who committed the offenses.
"In this current budget crisis, we're looking at any way we can to continue operating and provide the best service we can," sheriff's spokesman Kevin Doll said.
It will work like this: In the arrest reports filled out by deputies, there will be a new space for indicating the number of hours spent investigating, multiplied by an hourly rate. The Sheriff's Office will forward the requested fee to the State Attorney's Office, which will then ask judges to impose the fine as part of a defendant's probation.
An identical program has been in place in Pinellas and other Florida counties for years. State law allows it.
The fee applies only to people who are convicted of crimes or traffic offenses. Pasco will charge its base salary and benefits of a rookie deputy, $26 an hour, and the base for forensics investigators, $18 an hour.
For someone arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, the Sheriff's Office says the typical investigation — from the traffic stop to completion of the report — is about two hours.
Cost to the drunk driver: $52.
This fee is in addition to numerous court costs already footed by criminals for things like DNA tests and indigent clients' defense.
Bob Dillinger, the elected public defender whose office represents those who can't afford an attorney, called the fee "horrible."
"If you don't have the money, it just puts you in a hole that you can't get out of," he said.
Keith Hammond, a private defense attorney, echoed that.
"Especially in these rough economic times, I think we have the working class guy out there struggling to make it, and they add more court costs," Hammond said. "Now, on the other hand, people will say maybe they shouldn't get into trouble, but sometimes things happen."
But Doll said the fee is not intended to punish anyone.
"It's meant to recover taxpayers' dollars for the cost of criminal investigations," he said.
Florida Tax Watch, a watchdog group in Tallahassee, took issue with that justification, as the money isn't going back to taxpayers' pockets.
"This would be a great opportunity to reduce the tax burden for law-abiding citizens. It's unfortunate that local governments weren't using innovative ideas like this to lower taxes years ago," said communications director Robert Weissert. "But as they say, necessity is the mother of innovation."
Doll agreed the effect won't be a tax break for residents. White expects to recoup an estimated $50,000 to $100,000, which would be new revenue for the Sheriff's Office.
"I think the amount of money we're talking about recouping, it wouldn't have been enough to reduce taxes anyway," Doll said. "But every little bit helps."
In Pinellas, the money adds up to an average of $230,000 a year, sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha said. It comes in different ways, sometimes through payment plans with installments as low as $3.
But every convict pays it.
"It's across the board," she said.
Staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.