A legislative mandate to make Arizona’s registered sex offenders pay a $100 yearly fee is proving unpopular with both the convicts and some public safety officials.
Lawmakers made the fee the sole source of funding for the state’s sex offender compliance unit, but initial collection rates indicate the plan may not bring in an adequate amount of money and won’t save the state as much as hoped.
Not only are collections low, officials said, but the new system is taking precious time away from the state’s primary goal of keeping track of more than 13,000 sex offenders.
The Arizona Department of Public Safety mailed the first batch of 1,500 collection letters at the end of October. Offenders were informed the new fees had to be paid by Nov. 30.
Barely 20 percent had mailed in fees as of last week, said Val Biebrich, supervisor of the DPS sex offender compliance unit.
"It’s certainly not enough," Biebrich said. "We need to generate approximately $700,000."
That’s roughly the annual amount it takes to pay Biebrich and five other DPS employees to verify each sex offender’s address and run an In ternet site,
Earlier this year, lawmakers seeking to alleviate the state’s fiscal crisis wiped out the budget of Biebrich’s squad, providing the authorization — and motivation — to collect the fee from the lawbreakers instead of taxpayers. One thing the plan failed to include was any sort of penalty for nonpaying sex offenders.
But the low response rate is only part of the problem, Biebrich said.
The law requires addresses of all Arizona sex offenders be verified every year. Currently, the job takes DPS about twice that long.
Biebrich said he and his staff will fall even further behind with between 10 percent and 25 percent of their time now taken up as bill collectors.
Besides doing the mailings and dealing with checks as they come in, the office has also been fielding calls from angry sex offenders and sometimes their lawyers, Biebrich said.
"I don’t think anyone realized the amount of time and effort it takes to administer a fee collection system," he said. "It’s impacted us even more negatively than we thought it would."
Instead of the current situation, Biebrich had hoped months ago that his unit would instead receive increased funding. In March, he told the Tribune he would like to have an employee dedicated solely to tracking down the 750 or so "absconders" — sex offenders who cannot be found and registered.
Chandler police detective Bill Klapmeyer said he worries the fee could lead to more people failing to register, leading to even more sex offenders whose whereabouts are unknown. Klapmeyer, whose job includes keeping tabs on his city’s sex offenders, said some simply refuse to register with authorities despite the possibility of a felony charge and jail or prison time.
Though many sex offenders in Chandler are employed and live in rental homes or apartments, others are homeless or actively evading police, he said.
"I was shocked when I found out it was $100," Klapmeyer said. "It might push them over the edge, the guys that were hard to register to begin with."
However, the system may yet work out. Biebrich plans to send batches of letters out until at least April. He’ll show lawmakers what he’s collected during the upcoming 2004 legislative session and request more money if necessary, he said.
The unit seems likely to experience a shortfall during this state fiscal year, which began in July. Next year’s yield could be much higher.
State Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said he plans to put some "teeth" in the law to make the fee easier to collect. One way to do that could be to tie the fee to the sex offender’s driver’s license, officials said.
Not all sex offenders are reluctant, or unable, to cough up the $100.
"I’m too afraid to leave this to chance," said Jeffrey Tonniges, 35, of Scottsdale. "I will be right on it to pay."
Tonniges, a former masseur at the Phoenician resort, was convicted in 1994 of sexually assaulting two of his clients. He said he "misread" their intentions; they said he touched them improperly while they were sleeping.
He served six months in jail for the crimes, and is required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. He also served another three months in jail in 1997 for failing to register.
Finding out he has to now pay $100 a year is like "a kick in the seat," but he said he agrees it makes sense to make sex offenders pay for the registration system.
"I’m willing to do whatever it takes to not go back," he said.
Sex offenders Number of sex offenders in Arizona: About 13,000 Number of sex offenders released from Arizona prisons every year: About 1,000 Source: Arizona Department of Public Safety, March 2003