Rich Mckay, Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
"Here's one," Lt. Terry Meehan says from the behind the wheel of his black and white Crown Vic.
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He flicks the siren switch off and on, issuing a "yelp" to pull over the silver Lexus racing 20 mph too fast through this blink-of-an-eye town.
Welcome to Waldo, the horse-pastured hamlet just north of Gainesville, Fla., that AAA labels the worst speed trap in America.
Officers write so many tickets here on U.S. 301 that AAA put up a billboard north of town warning drivers of a "Speed Trap" ahead. Waldo and its neighbor Lawtey, a few miles down the road, are the only towns in America to earn such wrath.
To that, Meehan says, "I don't care," and smiles affably and goes about his job, grabbing a fresh ticket.
Eric, a salesman from Maitland, wipes sweat from his forehead as he stands on U.S. Highway 301, pushes his glasses back up and tells the officer he didn't see the speed-limit sign.
Meehan politely points out that maybe Eric shouldn't have been talking on a cell phone. The ticket will cost him $186. If he were driving like that in a school or construction zone it could have been $536.
Flagrant speeders aren't the problem, said Randy Bly, spokesman for AAA Auto Club South.
It's the "for-profit" stance Waldo and Lawtey appear to take on enforcing traffic laws. Each town rakes in 25 percent or more of its annual budget in traffic-ticket fines.
Other cities make more from traffic tickets -- even in the millions of dollars, Bly conceded. Orlando, for instance, makes about $2 million on parking tickets alone, and the fees went up in October.
But that's just a drop in Orlando's $500 million city budget. Other towns are inching up in traffic-ticket enforcement. Traffic tickets in Coleman, in Sumter County, last year accounted for almost 10 percent of the city budget, Bly said.
But nothing comes close to Waldo. For the fiscal year 2001-2002, traffic tickets accounted for about 105 percent of the Police Department's $262,000 budget.
"They're clearly using the Police Department as a money-making venture," Bly said. In most towns, the ticket-take is just 1 percent to 3 percent of the budget, an AAA study showed.
Last year, ticket writing raised more than $275,000, accounting for more than 25 percent of Waldo's $1.1 million budget, Bly said.
The budget math works out to a full third, if federal and state government grants aren't counted in the budget, he said.
Still, that's better than it was -- back in 1995, ticket-writing raked in 38 percent of Waldo's budget.
"Looks like they're out for money, not slowing down traffic," he said.
The Waldo Area Chamber of Commerce is rankled over this, too.
Dena Rice, one of the chamber directors and the owner of Waldo Feed & Hardware, sells T-shirts mocking the speed trap at $12 a piece.
Back on U.S. 301, Meehan says he parks in plain sight and people still speed past him, or slam on their brakes when they crest the hill and see the "bubblegum machine" lights on top.
And Meehan says he'll also pull you over for not wearing seat belts, running stop signs, having a blinker out.
Hefting a code book, he said, "The state Legislature's passed 400 traffic laws. They must think it's important."
"See that little blue car? The window's tinted too dark," he says as he rolls the Crown Vic into an about-face and heads after it.