Excerpt from New York Times article of April 15, 2013: 2013 Journalism Pulitzer Winners
The Pulitzer Prizes were announced on Monday. The list of winners in the journalism categories follows.
THE SUN SENTINEL, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
The Sun Sentinel won its first Pulitzer Prize for a three-part series by Sally Kestin, 48, an investigative reporter, and John Maines, 57, a database editor, that examined the driving speeds of off-duty police officers in South Florida. Using data from highway tolls and GPS technology, the reporters found 800 police officers from a dozen different agencies driving at average speeds of 90 to more than 120 miles per hour.
As a result of the series, there was an 84 percent drop in the number of officers driving more than 90 miles per hour and many of the officers faced disciplinary action.
“I think we really ended up saving lives,” Ms. Kestin said.
And these were just the ones they wrote about!
If only we saw more enterprising reporting like this in South Florida, he said to himself...
In late 2010, South Florida Sun-Sentinel reporter Sally B. Kestin wrote the following article as part of a series on questionable government spending, and within an hour of seeing it, I'd sent an email out with a link to it to friends around the state and the country because it was so accurate and fair.
It was the first piece of hers that brought her to my attention.
(Yes, she's Northwestern Class of 1987, so she was in Evanston at the same time I was living there on the North Shore, when the first McDonald's there, next to the Hotel Orrington, was eat-in only, no take-out.)
It includes spot-on quotes from my friend, longtime Broward County civic activist and truth-teller Charlotte Greenbarg, regarding South Florida cities continued refusal to bite-the-bullet on runaway Police Union contracts and stop giving away tax dollars in a tough economy thru a program that is more anecdotal than practical or economical.
Given how small the City of Hallandale Beach is, just 4.2 square miles, this problem of take-home cars is a real problem here, where few police officers actually live.
Which means we are spending more than most Broward cities as a percentage.
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
South Florida deputies get take-home cars — and we pay
by Sally Kestin Sun-Sentinel
November 13, 2010
Sheriff's deputies in South Florida enjoy a perk almost unheard of in most jobs: take-home cars and in some cases unlimited free gas.
Employees of the Broward and Palm Beach County sheriff's offices are permitted not only to drive their department-issued vehicles for personal use but also to and from work, even if they live outside the county. Some log 100 miles or more each day on their commutes.
The rationale for take-home cars is that deputies are always on call, and having marked patrol cars on the roads helps deter crime. But even some managers and non-sworn officers get cars for commuting, and critics say the benefit is a luxury taxpayers can't afford, particularly in tough economic times.
The sheriff's vehicle policies in Broward and Palm Beach counties are more generous than those of other large police agencies in the state, which require employees to live within a certain distance to get a take-home car.
PBSO has 1,538 employees who drive cars home. More than 225 of them live outside the county.
About 2,900 BSO employees get cars, but the sheriff's agency said it cannot determine how many are non-Broward residents.
Charlotte Greenbarg, president of the watchdog group Broward Coalition, said deputies should only be allowed to take cars home if they also live in the county they serve. "We've got terribly tough times, the money's very tight, the budgets are shrinking as our incomes are,'' she said.
The car perk is part of the contracts negotiated by unions representing sheriff's employees. At BSO, union members who are not assigned vehicles instead get a pay supplement of $453 a month, or $5,441 a year.
The sheriff's offices pay for maintenance of the take-home cars, and gas is subsidized by taxpayers.
BSO employees living in Broward pay nothing for the use of their sheriff's vehicle and gas up for free at county pumps. Last year, the sheriff's office began requiring employees who live in Palm Beach or Miami-Dade counties to pay $40 to $55 every two weeks, depending on the distance of their commutes.
"I realize that's a burden on the taxpayers,'' said Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti. "We are now asking them to pay for their gas for commuting so at least they're paying something if they live outside of Broward County.''
PBSO employees pay a fuel charge of $25 every two weeks if they live in the county and $30 for out-of-county residents.
They're allowed to drive the cars not just while on duty but also for personal errands. PBSO employees can use their cars on their days off and while on leave, as long as they remain in Palm Beach County.
BSO's policy says deputies are "encouraged to use their vehicles off duty'' while in Broward.
Taking cars home is a benefit to the public, sheriff's officials said.
"Deputies, even if they're going to and from work, they're still on duty,'' said BSO spokesman Mike Jachles. "It's a deterrent. You don't know how many crimes might have been prevented because that deputy is driving through a neighborhood or a car is in his driveway.''
Off-duty deputies have rescued people trapped underwater in cars, rendered aid at accidents and intervened in crimes, he said.
Deputies can also respond quicker in an emergency, Lamberti said.
"The positive side of it, it provides us the ability to respond when everybody has their own car whether it be a hurricane, Super Bowl, Orange Bowl,'' the sheriff said. "They don't have to go somewhere, get in their vehicle and then respond.''
Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said allowing deputies to take cars home actually saves about $9 million a year in "prep time'' costs the sheriff's office would otherwise have to pay. A federal court ruling said sheriff's deputies were entitled to time and a half pay for getting ready for work, including driving to get their patrol cars and loading their equipment, he said.
"The reality is, in economic times, it's a perception thing. It's like, 'Geez, I don't even have a job, how come they get take-home cars?' '' Bradshaw said. "Come strap on a gun, get involved in what these deputies do, risk your life every night, I'll give you a take-home car. I don't consider it a perk in any way.''
BSO spends about $19 million a year on fuel, maintenance and vehicle replacement, while the budget at PBSO is $14 million. The sheriff's offices can't say how much of those costs are related to taking cars home.
A 2007 audit by the city of West Palm Beach found that more than half the miles logged on its take-home vehicles were for personal commuting by the employees, including one who lived more than 80 miles away. The city restricted take-home cars to police officers living in or near West Palm Beach. About 80 employees lost vehicle privileges, saving the city $700,000 a year.
The savings would be higher at the sheriff's offices, which are much larger.
Many police and sheriff's departments in Florida allow employees to take cars home, but some large agencies are more restrictive.
Employees at the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, for instance, cannot use cars for commuting if they live more than 10 miles outside the county, and the cutoff at the Orange County Sheriff's Office is 20 miles.
In Hillsborough, employees living in other counties pay 50 cents a mile for the distance between the county line and their homes.
The Florida Highway Patrol gives troopers take-home cars, but they must live within 30 miles of the city where they're assigned. They can drive the cars to and from college if they're enrolled or a gym to stay fit, but other personal uses are not allowed.
BSO used to require employees to live in Broward to take cars home until the mid 1990s, Lamberti said. The sheriff's office recently renegotiated the union contract for road deputies but kept the car perk and other benefits.
Deputies at BSO and PBSO make $45,000 to over $100,000 a year, and some take in thousands more in overtime. They get a minimum of seven weeks in vacation, holidays and sick time – more for employees with longer service.
Like many other public agencies, sheriff's offices have been hard hit by plunging tax revenues. BSO recently cut $23 million from its budget, and Lamberti issued an ultimatum to 254 jail deputies – take a pay reduction and a demotion or be fired.
Sgt. Anthony Marciano, head of the union representing Broward jailers, said his members don't get cars to take home.
"I'm glad [road deputies] have that perk,'' he said. "But when you have budget cuts and you're cutting my union members' salaries. . . I don't think it's fair.''
WHAT: Take-home cars for deputies and other sheriff's personnel
COST TO US: Total vehicle budget is $19 million in Broward and $14 million in Palm Beach County; take-home cars represent an undetermined portion of that