In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Small town frittering should provide lesson for urban centers

The little North Florida town of Hampton could be obliterated, wiped out for financial ineptitude, lousy oversight of the town police force, indications of corruption, a touch of nepotism.

It doesn’t help that Mayor Barry Layne Moore, a rather unmayoral looking fellow with his long scraggly hair and untrimmed mustache, has been in the Bradford County Jail since November, awaiting trial on charges he was peddling oxycodone. (Moore finally resigned last week.)

All this has the Legislature threatening to yank the town’s 1925 charter of incorporation.

Which ought be a frightening precedent for more than a few South Florida cities and counties, none very beloved by the good ol’ boys up in Tallahassee.

Down this way, we’ve suffered our own variations of financial management, corruption, police misconduct and mayors arrested on criminal charges. City officials in Sweetwater, West Palm Beach, Tamarac, Homestead, Miami, Miami Beach, Hialeah, North Miami, and in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach county halls might consider contributing to the Save-Hampton-From-Tallahassee legal defense fund.

Hampton’s fatal sin, however, has less to do with corruption and mismanagement than a stretch of U.S. 301 well outside the original city limits. The town annexed 1,290 feet of the highway back in the 1990s by grabbing a mile-long easement along a connecting county road. The city, population 477 (476 since the mayor was busted), turned passing traffic into its chief source of revenue. AAA designated Hampton as one of three speed traps (along with Lawtey and Waldo) on the road between Gainesville and Jacksonville.

Hampton, in particular, went berserk with the speeding tickets. The city took in $616,960 in fines between 2010 and 2012 after issuing 12,698 tickets. Unhappily for the city’s business plan, state Rep. Charles Van Zant was among those slapped with a ticket in 2011. Van Zant is now leading the charge in the Legislature to take away the town’s charter.

Hampton officers were said to lounge on the roadside in lawn chairs with their radar guns. CNN reported one Hampton cop wore full SWAT gear, with an AR-15 slung over his shoulder, as he wrote speeding tickets.

At one point, the town police force numbered 17 officers, most of them occupied with nabbing speeders. Miami-Dade County would have needed 100,000 police officers to match the Hampton cops-to-population ratio. Then it all fell apart.

On March 7, investigators from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the Bradford County Sheriff’s Office searched the Hampton City Hall and the tin-roofed outbuilding that serves as their police headquarters, looking for evidence of corruption.

The raid comes after Florida auditor general (prompted by Van Zant) ran an audit on Hampton’s bizarre financial management practices. The report, released in February, indicates all that speeding ticket revenue seemed to have evaporated.

Town workers ran up charges on the city’s credit cards and cellphones without bothering with expense reports. The city never bothered to charge certain customers for water, including three City Council members. Others customers were asked to pay in cash.

Police officers would take an unspecified amount of that cash, kept in bags at City Hall, for “drug stings,” never returning the money. (The county sheriff noted that the city never actually made any drug arrests. No one knows what happened to the sting money.) Relatives of city officials were paid for unspecified work. City workers drove around, on and off the job, in city cars, using gasoline paid for by the city. Most of the city’s vehicles were not insured.

The big problem facing investigators might be discerning whether the disappearing money had to do with corruption or just utter incompetence. But despite all that money generated by the speed trap out on U.S. 301, the town has fallen ever deeper into deficit spending.

So much for the myth of the moral superiority of mostly white (87 percent), rural, church-going (the police chief once held evangelical church services at Hampton City Hall) small towns over diverse rabble-running urban communities.

Hampton’s most amazing feat, at least from a South Florida perspective, is that the town managed to fritter away all that money without giving away a cent to a pro sports team.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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