Some local municipal officials are worried about the impact of legislation that could reduce the percentage of general revenue that they can receive from traffic tickets.
If passed, Senate Bill 5, an update of the state’s “Mack Creek Law,” would cut the percentage of revenue a city can receive from traffic tickets from 30 percent to 10 percent by 2017. The percentage applies to general operating revenue in a city’s budget, which pays for most city services.
If approved in its present form, the percentage would be phased in over two years – dropping to 20 percent on Jan. 1, 2016, and to 10 percent on Jan. 1, 2017.
The bill was passed by the Senate in February and has moved on to the Missouri House for consideration. It was designed to address issues in St. Louis County where 82 municipal courts have come under scrutiny since the August shooting Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer.
Some of those courts have been referred to as “debtors prisons” by sponsor Sen. Eric Schmitt (R- District 15). Schmitt said the courts raise distrust between residents and the justice system; and, while the bill has a greater effect in St. Louis County, it stands to have an impact on some St. Charles County municipalities because provisions apply to first class counties, local officials say.
“If passed it will negatively impact our general revenue fund,” said Weldon Spring City Administrator Michael Padella.
Padella said the city gets 17 percent of its revenue from traffic tickets. The amount of revenue doesn’t come from a large number of traffic tickets but reflects a small municipal budget.
“According to our budget it would deduct approximately $34,000 which would have to be turned over to the state,” Padella said. “That’s a lot of money for a municipality with a $500,000 budget.”
Cottleville Mayor Jim Hennessey said one of the issues with SB5 is how general revenue will be defined.
“Does it include things like grants, park fees, waste hauling fees and special tax funds?” Hennessey asked. “The percentage of revenue that Cottleville derives from its traffic tickets would fluctuate wildly based on this answer.”
Hennessey said the first thing to be done – other than kill the bill altogether – is to eliminate its ambiguity.
“Then and only then can each municipality figure out the impact it is going to have on our budgets,” Hennessey said.
Since 2009, the average income from traffic tickets in Cottleville has been between 9 and 16 percent of its budget.
“In the year (when) we were close to 16 percent, Cottleville would have had to forfeit over $100,000 to the state,” Hennessey said. “To a small city like ours this would be devastating. If the idea behind the bill is to eliminate those cities who only survive by giving tickets, I get it. However I’m not sure the legislature has factored in the collateral damage to cities like Cottleville, which is by no means a “ticket factory.”
If SB 5 passes, money from tickets above 10 percent would go to the state, which would distribute the revenue to local schools.
Hennessey said on average Cottleville police issue around 130 tickets per month, or 1 to 2 tickets per shift.
“If this bill were to pass through the House, it would have meant forfeiting approximately $400,000 over the past six years,” Hennessey said. “For a small city like Cottleville, we would either have to raise taxes or eliminate essential city services.”
Sandra Stokes, city administrator for Foristell, said that village may not know an exact percentage of revenue from tickets until the completion of an annual audit. But she said SB5 could cut into already limited funding for the village of about 500 residents.
“Yes, we’re extremely worried,” Stokes said.
She said legislators shouldn’t come up with a blanket percentage that applies to every city, regardless of size. And she is hoping that local legislators will understand the local implications of the bill and can arrive at a formula that won’t punish cities that don’t have a lot of sales tax or other funding sources.
Stokes said Foristell’s six-member police department has to deal with an “enormous amount of traffic” because of its frontage along I-70 and on highways T and W. Along with traffic, the city also has major truck stops along I-70. City police issued 116 DWI tickets in 2014 and 526 DWI tickets over the last five years.
A loss of revenue in a tight budget might limit the city’s ability to fund a police department, which isn’t funded entirely by ticket revenue, she said, but does rely on that revenue to some degree. Stokes the city was $106,000 in the red last year.
“We’re pretty tight here,” she said.
Larger cities should not be affected or as severely affected by SB5. O’Fallon and St. Peters officials say only about 6 percent of their revenue comes from tickets. Additionally, the county’s major cities and Augusta, New Melle, Weldon Spring have municipal courts. The St. Charles County municipal court covers the unincorporated area and other smaller communities.
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[Editor’s note: Amy Armour contributed to this article.]