In the months following the tragic events in Ferguson, there has been increasing scrutiny on the policing practices in small North Saint Louis County cities. The argument, best made by Radley Balko of the Washington Post, is that micro-cities in Saint Louis County are using local police to shake down poor residents in order to support otherwise unnecessary government.
While we would argue that municipality size is certainly not everything, it is undeniable that many cities in Saint Louis County rely heavily on fines and court fees. One way of curtailing this sort of abuse is the rigorous implementation (or strengthening) of the Macks Creek law, which caps the amount of income a city can receive from traffic fines to 30 percent.
Missouri is preparing to audit some North Saint Louis County municipalities (along with cities in other counties) to ensure that they are not violating this law. However, the enforcement (or reform) of the Macks Creek law is up to statewide officials and voters. What’s more, if the law is vigorously enforced tiny municipalities might be forced to turn to large property tax increases or face insolvency. But local residents do not have to wait on statewide actions or accept a parasitic government. Voters can, and in the past did, disincorporate a city.
Under Missouri law, the residents can disincorporate their municipality if they: a. Gather 50 percent of residents’ signatures calling for an election on disincorporation; and b. 60 percent vote for disincorporation. At that point, the city would receive its basic services (including police and courts) from the county, unless they decide to join with another municipality.
Cities in Saint Louis County have disincorporated before, and recently. Just a few years ago, the poster child for a dysfunctional, traffic ticket-financed municipality was actually a middle-class, 95 percent white city in South Saint Louis County named Saint George. Major police scandals resulted in the city disbanding its police force, and residents ultimately voted to disincorporate in 2011. In 2013, the tiny (pop. 447) city of Uplands Park also held a vote on disincorporation, but that bid failed to reach the 60 percent mark.
The strategy of disincorporation is not without controversy. Loss of local representation, especially in areas with high minority populations, might be more worrying to some residents than fine-seeking officers. The approach also has limitations, as a municipality that funds decent public services mostly by fining pass-through traffic may serve voters’ interests while causing wider harm to the metropolitan area.
Most municipalities in Saint Louis County, including smaller ones, do not attempt to run their governments through aggressive police citations and court fees. However, residents should know that a local government that fails to provide for the common welfare (or openly harasses the poor) can be removed. A wider knowledge, if not actual use, of that option may result in more responsible city governance in Saint Louis County.