WALDO, Fla. (AP) — The tiny town of Waldo in north Florida has such a notorious reputation as a speed trap that AAA erected billboards to warn drivers about it, but all that may be about to change.
On Tuesday, weeks after the police chief and interim chief resigned due to state investigations into ticket quotas, mishandling of evidence and other issues, Waldo's City Council disbanded its police force.
While the Alachua County Sheriff's Office is now in charge of policing the town of 1,000, and AAA says it will consider removing its billboards, some citizens worry that the speeding problem will worsen and criminals will feel they have carte blanche.
"I think it's nuts," Waldo resident Kim Andrews said about the disbanded police force. He owns Andrews Knife and Muzzleloading, a weapon collector's shop just off the highway.
"It's rare that I ever wear this on my side," Andrews said, motioning to a pistol holstered on his hip. "Now I'll wear it every day."
Officials in the town between Jacksonville and Gainesville never hid the fact that citations paid for the small police force, arguing that the speeding problem was a real public safety hazard. For years motorists cruising through the 2-square-mile town have passed the AAA's warning signs.
Trouble with Waldo's police department started in August, when Chief Mike Szabo was suspended amid a Florida Department of Law Enforcement probe into his alleged recording of conversations with fellow officers.
A couple of weeks later the town's interim chief, Cpl. Kenneth Smith, was also suspended after five of the department's officers told the City Council that he was mishandling evidence, taking city property for personal use and imposing a strict ticket quota.
Smith and Szabo later resigned, and the department crumbled.
Waldo really does have a speeding problem, officials and residents insist. They say cars and trucks regularly blow through town on U.S. 301 and Highway 24, endangering residents and school children.
Alachua County sheriff's Lt. Steve Maynard has been helping patrol Waldo since the department's problems began in September. He understands the concerns about losing the town's police force, but he said call response times and safety will not be compromised.
"We are reconfiguring our (assignments) so that rapid response times will be ensured," Maynard said.
On Thursday green and white sheriff's vehicles buzzed around town, while the city's black and white patrol cars sat in front of the empty police department downtown.
AAA said it is still paying for billboards outside Waldo, and also nearby Lawtey. They are the only towns that AAA has singled out nationwide as speed traps.
With the police force disbanded, AAA said it will consider whether to remove the signs and take Waldo off its list — but only if it means traffic tickets are being given for safety reasons, and not revenue generation.
"We would certainly strongly consider not renewing the billboards on either side of Waldo when the outdoor advertising contracts come up for renewal," said AAA spokesman Kevin Bakewell.
About half of the town's roughly $1 million budget comes from citations, according to its budget. This helped pay for the police force. Portions of revenue from citations written by sheriff's deputies will still go to Waldo's coffers, Maynard said, but it's unclear how the city's budgeting will be affected in the future.
Waldo's City Manager Kim Worley refused to be interviewed for this article, and a Tallahassee-based spokesman, Ron Sachs, hired to handle public affairs for the city did not return an email seeking comment.
While the details are hashed out, some Waldo residents worry drivers will feel free to speed through town.
"I hate to lose the police department, just for general safety levels," Harold Coday, 80, said outside Waldo's post office. "And the officers were good guys, they were just doing their job writing tickets. They had good intentions."
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