Reporting Jim DeFede
South Florida Crime
MIAMI (CBS4) – Miami Dade County has a fleet of 7,000 vehicles. Every day county employees take those cars and trucks hither and yon as they go about their various duties.
Often they find themselves on one of the county’s toll roads — such as the Dolphin or Shula Expressways, the Gratigny, even the Turnpike. Some county employees pay the tolls. Others just zip on through the Sunpass lane — whether they have a Sunpass or not.
So what happens when a county employee takes a county vehicle through a toll without paying? They get a notice of a violation in the mail. CBS4 News found more than a dozen boxes – filled with hundreds and hundreds of violations – at a county warehouse in Doral. Many of the violations were still in the envelope – never having been opened.
For years county employees and their departments simply ignored the notices — which only resulted in more fines and penalties and more letters being sent.
Between September 2008 and February 2012 — Miami Dade County racked up $637,000 in fines and penalties for county vehicles zipping through the toll lanes without paying.
CBS4 News obtained a copy of a July report by the county commission’s auditor that the number may actually grow to $1 million by the end of the year.
“That’s something that we need to fix,” said Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
In fairness to Mayor Gimenez the bulk of the violations piled up prior to him coming into office. The new director of Internal Services for the county, Lester Sola, said he has already worked out a plan to fix the problem. He also maintains the actual fines the county will pay will be far less than $637,000.
“We believe the [auditor’s] report was premature,” Sola said.
He said he is in the final stages of negotiating with both the Florida Department of Transportation and the Miami Dade Expressway Authority to slash the fines. He said he believes the actual fine the county will end up paying with be approximately $110,000.
So how do you pile up hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines? It turns out, thanks to the way fines are calculated; it’s not that hard at all.
Let’s take for example a $1 toll.
If the employee drives through without a Sunpass, they receive a notice and are given 21 days to pay $3.50.
If they ignore that notice, they are sent formal traffic citation and given 30 days to pay $26.
After that the fine goes to $150.
If another 30 days pass without payment the fine becomes $166
And fifteen days after that, it jumps one more time to $232.
In other words the worse thing you can do is ignore the notices. The county commission auditor found that out of the $637,000 the county owes — 97 percent of it was fines and penalties.
The report states: “If the toll violations were paid on time, the estimated amount would be approximately $20,000.”
According to the mayor, part of the problem is already being solved.
“We’re going to get Sunpasses [for all county vehicles],” Gimenez said. “We should have done that some time ago.”
Sola said they are also reviewing the records internally.
“We have to figure out if there were employees who were abusing the system,” he said. “We do not see that at this time, but it is something we will be looking into.”
County commissioners CBS4 News spoke to simply expressed dismay. But Commissioner Xavier Suarez had his own question.
“The bigger problem is why do we have 7,200 county vehicles all over the place?” Suarez asked. “That’s almost one for every three employees in the county.”