JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Following the racial unrest that surfaced after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson last summer, one issue that has garnered the attention of some legislators, Ferguson protesters and Gov. Jay Nixon is municipal court reform.
In his state of the state address last month, Nixon said municipal court reform is needed, “so that all citizens are treated fairly.”
And while the St. Louis area has, since the shooting, been the focus of much of the conversation, at least one of the municipal court bills that has been proposed by lawmakers could impact a number of municipalities in Southwest Missouri.
Recently, a St. Louis-based group examined municipal court fines and fees in a number of communities in the state, and concluded that ‘some municipal courts are nothing more than revenue centers.’ The group, Better Together, which advocates for consolidation of St. Louis County, also called the use of fines and fees to raise revenue ‘hidden taxes.’ The nonprofit group is sponsored by the Missouri Coalition for a Better Economy.
In 2013, according to Better Together, the combined total of all court fines and fees collected in the state was $132 million, with more than $61 million of that collected by the city of St. Louis and from communities nearby. That’s 46 percent of the total ‘despite being home to only 22 percent of Missourians,’ the study concluded.
In one community — Calverton Park — two-thirds of all city revenue came from municipal court fines and fees. Many, but not all, of those communities have large populations of blacks and residents who are below the poverty line.
St. Louis city itself, which has 5 percent of Missouri’s population, collected 7 percent of the fines and fees, the study found. But the combined impact of 90 municipalities in St. Louis County was such that while they have 11 percent of the state’s population, they collected 34 percent of all municipal fines and fees statewide — more than $45 million in 2013.
One of the bills proposed in this session would lower the revenue that cities can keep from traffic tickets.
The issue is nothing new. A state law enacted in 1995 aimed to prevent cities from raising large percentages of their general operating budgets from speeding tickets. The idea at the time was to limit speed traps, most famously Mack’s Creek on U.S. Highway 54 in Camden County. At one point, nearly 85 cents of each dollar the small community of Mack’s Creek raised came from speeding tickets. The original legislation set the cap at 45 percent, but legislators lowered it over the years to 35 percent, and then to 30 percent, where it stands now. Under current law, communities that go above that are supposed to send the excess revenue back to the state to be spent on education. The problem that has developed, though, is cities can self-report, definitions are unclear and there has been lax enforcement of the rules.
This year, state Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, who grew up in north St. Louis County, has introduced legislation that would set the cap on money cities can collect from traffic tickets and court fines at 10 percent of operating revenue.
“Government exists to serve our citizens,” Schmitt said in a statement issued when he filed his bill. “Unfortunately, the municipal court system, especially in the St. Louis region, has created a system of traffic ticket tricks and schemes designed to extract more and more from our citizens. These schemes are little more than ATMs for bloated big government budgets that have hit the poor especially hard.’
The Schmitt bill, which passed out of committee Wednesday, also includes provisions for the creation of penalties if political subdivisions do not remit money over the threshold, and says that people in the incorporated municipality also will get the opportunity to vote on municipal disincorporation. His bill also would turn over enforcement to the Missouri Department of Revenue.
Schmitt cited Diamond, in Newton County, as an example of the problem. In its study, Better Together noted that in 2013 the city raised about $187,000 in revenue from its municipal courts, which Schmitt said was one of the largest percentages of a city’s budget coming from traffic fines and court fees in the state. Better Together’s study claimed that amounted to about 70 percent of Diamond’s nearly $262,000 budget.
But Charles Genisio, the city’s attorney, challenged that figure.
‘There’s no telling what accounting principles they used to make that report,’ he said.
Genisio said he reached out to the state auditor’s office for clarification on the definition of “general operating revenue.” Using that, he said, Diamond actually got closer to 35 to 40 percent of its revenue last year from municipal court fines and fees, and he estimated that what might have to be paid to the state will be less than $15,000. That definition was issued in December 2014, and he said he is not sure what that would mean for 2013 or for previous years.
He also said legislators never defined what would count as operating revenue when they passed the Mack’s Creek law 20 years ago, and so it’s unclear what counts and what doesn’t. He also said regular city audits had never flagged the revenue from municipal courts as a problem.
“From Diamond’s standpoint, it was sort of a moving target. There’s no general operating revenue definition to be used for this statute. Now, we have this definition the state auditor’s office gave us,’ Genisio said.
Asked about the legislation, Genisio said that from the perspective of the small rural towns he represents, lowering the cap on municipal fines could further harm rural police departments, shifting the duties to county and state agencies.
“If you play out this 30 percent that might go down to 10 percent, Diamond would lose a couple of police officers,” he said. “That means the sheriff’s department and or the Highway Patrol will have to pick up that burden.”
Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said he, too, was skeptical about applying the tighter cap beyond St. Louis County.
“I think municipal court reform is fine for St. Louis County, but I’m not sure it is good for anybody else. I don’t know if there’s any problems in small towns,” he said.
Asked about Diamond or other cities in his Senate district, Richard said, “I don’t hear anybody complaining about it.”
In Southwest Missouri, several other communities could be impacted by the 10 percent cap, according to Better Together. Seligman, in Barry County, received 36.5 percent of its revenue from municipal fines and fees, but all other communities were under that threshold.
But in 2013, nine cities, including Pineville (at 30 percent), Duquesne (at 27 percent) and Anderson (at 16 percent) would be impacted if the state dropped the threshold to 10 percent. Also above 10 percent were Southwest City (24.46), Noel (16.94), and Carl Junction (12.43.)
The city of Joplin, with 8 percent of its revenue derived from municipal fines and fees, would not. Seneca, Neosho, Carthage, Webb City and Lamar also were under 10 percent, according to the report.
Richard Sheets, the deputy director of the Missouri Municipal League, testified against the measure last week. He said the focus should be on looking at issues within the municipal courts, not “setting some number.”
“This bill affects cities statewide,” he said. “We believe that the vast majority of our municipalities have strong public safety departments and are conducting their duties responsibly.”