Friday, June 13, 2014

Motorists Assist Revenue

As many cities and municipalities across the nation, including the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County, continue to confront budget challenges – no doubt due to their own fiscal waste and mismanagement – critics frequently cite traffic citations as a means from which they illicitly generate revenue in order to close the gaps. Politicians and police persistently counter those claims that any citations are in the name of “public safety,” the revenue generated from them negligible and secondary to any other concerns.

When visiting the City of St. Louis, three main options, all fee-based, exist for parking: garage, lot or metered. Garage and lot parking can cost anywhere from a dollar an hour to $20 per visit. As for metered parking, the Parking Commission, a division of the Treasurer department, oversees approximately 10,000 parking meters whose operation and cost depends on the day of the week. Monday through Saturday parking meters are in operation from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with the exception of “multispace” meters that are in effect 24-hours a day; on Sundays and certain city holidays, all metered parking is free. Currently, the city is field testing new meters that will allow the use of cash, credit cards and even your mobile phone to pay for parking. With the number of violations in the hundreds of thousands each year, parking fees combined with fines that range from $10 to $100 create a steady revenue source for the city.

Compiled from information provided by the Parking Violations Bureau (P.V.B.), the City of St. Louis municipal court system and alleged violators themselves, data shows an inordinate number of vehicles ticketed despite parked legally at the time. The majority, but not all, were parked at meters on weekends during free periods; yet, they have been cited for a variety of alleged violations of city ordinances that include fire lane violations, parking near a mailbox and general prohibited parking. According to alleged violators, the qualifying justification for issuing the ticket was not a factor present at the time; categorically, the fine schedule and appeal procedure is as puzzling, if not more, to these violators as the infractions for which they have been cited. As outlined by the P.V.B., a parking ticket must be paid within 15 days of issuance to avoid additional fees; if the ticket is not suspended or payment is not received within those 15 days, the fine increases by 100% the original amount; after 45 days, the fine increases 300% of the original amount. Despite being in the process of appealing the citation, a number of those ticketed have had their fines double and triple between the date of issuance and a scheduled appeal hearing. Some see it as an unfair practice with only one purpose:  revenue generation, through a means city officials know that most will just pay.

Now, the use of red light and speed cameras has raised questions in both the city and county. Are these simply for public safety, or further means to raise revenue thinly justified by it as critics contend? Like the city, a handful of municipalities in the county currently face legal challenges over their red light cameras; a similar battle has been taking place across the state in Kansas City. While the courts continue to debate their constitutionality – the most recent concerning the city’s red light cameras – several members of the Missouri General Assembly have introduced legislation not only to regulate but also to outright ban the use of either. Co-sponsored by Representatives Bryan Spencer (R-Wentzville), Ron Hicks (R-St. Peters) and Michael Frame (D-Eureka), House Bill 1533 would prohibit automated traffic enforcement systems; similarly, House Bill 1557 and Senate Bill 746, would exempt from the license point system any violations resulting from such systems. More intriguing, Senate Bill 540, introduced by Senator Joseph Keaveny (D-St. Louis), seeks to raise the fine for seat belt violations from $10 to $50. There is no indication whether the increase would go toward a seat belt safety education fund, or simply into municipal coffers as a non-moving violation that many motorists simply would pay rather than dispute in court. All would take effect starting August 28, 2014; presently, none are scheduled for hearing or on the respective legislature calendar.

As Attorney General, current Governor Jay Nixon questioned the use and legality of red light cameras; in 2012, he signed legislation regulating the minimum change length of yellow lights over concerns municipalities shortening the time to increase red light citations. Paul Payne, Budget Director for the City of St. Louis, says, “red light cameras likewise provide city revenue as any other traffic fines or ordinance violations should, however the manpower assigned for the enforcement effort is much less than would otherwise be possible without the cameras in place.” In other words, there is more revenue generated and less personnel cost from red light cameras; in 2013, approximately $6 million was collected in fines according to city officials. However, when asked about the issue of revenue shortfalls, effective and ineffective measures to address them and the role of traffic citations in any overall strategy for revenue generation, Payne stated, “the police department has not typically been seen as a part of the overall revenue strategy.” Not typically. When asked about the latter, representatives from both city and county police departments concurred and denied any such policy or strategy on their part instead citing public safety for issuance of traffic citations, including those from automated systems like red light and speed cameras.

Over the preceding five-year period alone, both the city and county have experienced success and failure in attempts to counter downward budget trends according to existing documentation. This includes discussions in recent years of re-merging the city with the county to address overlaps in services that potentially could save both millions of dollars. According to Payne, the city “incurred significant operating deficits” during the fiscal years 2009-’10 due to the recession. With long-term general revenue growth just under 2%, while personnel, pension and health insurance costs continue to rise, he admits that “a structural imbalance remains…and the budget remains vulnerable to future downturns” despite modest yet positive operating balances the last three fiscal years (2011-’13). Some steps taken to counter these budget challenges have included reductions in the workforce, pension reform efforts – which for the last few years have been in the spotlight and highly contentious – and deferment of capital expenditures. With little exception, St. Louis County faces similar circumstances according to available budget numbers.

Meantime, traffic citations issued and municipal court fines collected have, on average according to available numbers, steadily increased over the same timeframe in both the city and county. Have residents simply become more scofflaws, or is it the city and county – and an overzealous “justice” system – that are perpetuating and getting away with a crime?

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley’s office did not respond to my inquiries.

©2014 Steve Sagarra

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