Many municipalities in Saint Louis County, large and small, rely on fines that harm their populations to fund local government. This week, the Washington Post published a story illuminating how clusters of small municipalities, each attempting to fund their governments through citations, turn parts of the county into a minefield for cash-strapped residents.
Saint Louis County contains 90 municipalities, some with less than 1,000 residents. Many of the smaller municipalities are in North Saint Louis County and rely heavily on traffic tickets and court fees. For example, Beverly Hills (population of 571) issued more than 3,000 tickets and collect more than $200,000 in court fees last year. Charlack, a small city in North Saint Louis County (population 1,362), derives 29 percent of its revenue through traffic fines alone. By contrast, most cities in Missouri receive less than 5 percent of their revenue from fines and fees.
But size is not everything. As the Post article points out, even the larger municipalities in North Saint Louis County are guilty of issuing numerous citations. Florissant (population 52,000) issued almost 30,000 traffic tickets for more than $3 million in fines last year, accounting for 13 percent of its revenue. Saint Ann, notorious for its I-70 speed trap, expects that 36 percent of its revenue ($3.3 million) will come from fines and court fees in 2014.
Furthermore, small Saint Louis County municipalities do not all rely so heavily on fines. For instance, Grantwood Village (population 863) only issues around 120 traffic tickets a year. In 2012, it collected only $34,000 in fines and fees. Black Jack, a small municipality in North Saint Louis County (population 6,920), receives less than 5 percent of its revenue from fines. What do Grantwood Village and Black Jack have in common? They both contract out police from Saint Louis County and do not operate their own police departments.
A combination of necessity and opportunity likely drives cities, large and small, to pursue aggressive citation policies: the necessity arising from a dearth of other funding sources, the opportunity from having a piece of Missouri’s highway system.
Fining residents to generate revenue, instead of promoting public order, is not the way to achieve good governance in Saint Louis County. In future blog posts, we will discuss these problems further and explore ways residents and policymakers can reform local governments.