This is the blog for Robert Vincent, Chief of Police for the Gulfport (Florida) Police Department. Please feel free to leave comments, but keep in mind that anything appearing on this page may be subject to retention and disclosure in accordance with Florida public records law.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Governer's Veto to Impact Local Taxpayers

For nearly forty years, one of the most efficient government operations in the state of Florida has been operating with no revenue from taxes. Thanks to Governor Rick Scott, that’s about to change.

Since 1975, a relatively obscure government operation known as the Police Applicant Screening Service (PASS) has continued to provide a centralized screening operation for all of the law enforcement agencies in Pinellas County. Although some additional background investigation is done by the employers, this initial screening serves to establish a pool of candidates that meet established basic criteria. Four full-time employees process applicants at a rate of 30-40 per month, conducting interviews and reviewing records from employers, government organizations, and credit bureaus.

Because applicants often express interest in several law enforcement agencies, PASS reduces the need for redundant screening that would otherwise take place. Instead of five or six background investigators at several police departments creating a similar file on the same applicant, one PASS investigator does the work and then shares it with any department that’s interested. This arrangement was the first of its kind in Florida, and others have followed suit. Since the inception of PASS in 1975, twelve law enforcement selection centers have been developed around the state. The US Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in cooperation with the International Association of Chiefs of Police highlighted PASS in a 2009 report as an example of government collaboration.

The best part of this program is that it has been completely funded with revenue from user fees and fines from traffic citations. Applicants pay a $250 processing fee, and PASS receives $2 from each traffic citation issued in Pinellas County. Unfortunately, the revenues have not been keeping up with expenses. To keep the operation solvent, PASS Director Mike Waters indicated an additional $100,000 in revenue would be needed in the coming year.

Since the applicant fee is market-driven, it cannot be increased, so another solution is needed. The Police Standards Council (PSC), which consists of the state attorney, sheriff, and chief of police for every law enforcement agency in the county, serves as the board of directors to the PASS operation. The PSC focused its efforts on amending the charter to allow for an increase in traffic fine revenue instead. Florida law allows selection centers to receive up to $3 per traffic citation, but the PASS charter, in place for decades, limits it to $2.

House Bill 1411, sponsored by Representative Ed Hooper, was drafted to accomplish this goal. It passed muster at the Pinellas Legislative Delegation, earning unanimous approval. In committee and on the main floor of the House, the Bill met with similar results. In the end, there was not one single member of the legislature who expressed opposition to the idea of allowing the PSC to charge an additional $1 to traffic violators so that this outstanding program could thrive.

Then it got to the governor’s office. Showing a complete lack of understanding for how the program works, Rick Scott vetoed the Bill, referring to PASS as an additional layer of unnecessary, duplicate government services.

Now, Pinellas agencies are faced with two options. We can disband the PASS operation entirely, which would require every agency to increase personnel dedicated to applicant screening. Or what is more likely, we can ask each agency to contribute some amount to make up the budget shortfall. Either of these options will result in an immediate and direct impact to taxpayers.

Ironically in his effort to approve “no new taxes or fees”, Governor Scott’s veto has put this government organization on a path where it will be funded, for the first time in nearly forty years, with taxes. In my opinion (and that is the purpose of this blog), the governor’s action was completely irresponsible and entirely driven by politics. The people of Florida deserve better.