Time to Reform Fine-Reliant Cities
Policing in North Saint Louis County is under the microscope. The tumultuous events of the last year have turned everyone’s attention to how the many tiny cities of North County enforce the law, and no one likes what they see:
Petty fines landing people in jail.
Budgets propped up by speed traps.
Rigged traffic lights that deceive motorists.
It’s clear that many of these cities use law enforcement more for profit than for protection. But change may finally be coming. State law is about to make it more difficult for municipalities to use police as tax collectors. Rather than double down and fight change, cities should decide how they can reduce their burden on taxpayers. Some might help everyone by going away.
Until this year, the state government failed to enforce a law—known as the Macks Creek Law—that was supposed to limited how much a city could rely on traffic fines. Reports of cities ignoring those limits date back to the late 1990s, but nothing was done. That has changed with the passage of Senate Bill 5. That bill, now signed into law, will strengthen the provisions of Macks Creek Law by lowering the amount of general revenue that can come from traffic fines to 15 percent in Saint Louis County. As for teeth, there are regular reporting requirements, and cities that do not comply will face disincorporation votes.
These changes spell trouble for many smaller cities in Saint Louis County. Twenty-seven North County municipalities have fewer than 3,000 residents, and seven have fewer than 500. Few taxpayers and increasing levels of poverty have pushed these cities to use traffic fines and other fees to stay solvent. More than a dozen of these municipalities get more than 20 percent of their total revenue from fines and court fees.
Disincorporation is a solution to the problem. There is precedent for disincorporation in Saint Louis County, most recently with scandal-ridden Saint George. Essential services, like the police, are now provided by Saint Louis County. Last year, Uplands Park held a vote on disincorporation that almost won the required supermajority.
Another solution is for cities to reduce costs by combining services. Most cities already rely on pooled services for water, power, education, and fire protection. It would not be a stretch for more cities to combine police forces or other essential services. For example, Saint Louis County already provides police for 18 municipalities. That saves money and provides localities with better-trained officers. And unlike some municipal-specific police forces, the county police do not have the same incentive to write tickets for revenue collection purposes.
Instead of turning over policing to the county, some municipalities are integrating police forces amongst themselves, with the recent example of Vinita Park and Wellston. While this in theory saves resources, residents could be stuck with the same revenue-generating practices if cities get rid of their own ticket-oriented police forces only to contract with another city that uses the same questionable practices. For example, Breckenridge expressed interest in contracting police service from Saint Ann, which has gained a reputation for using I-70 like an ATM.
Now that Senate Bill 5 is law, many municipalities are going to have to start making hard choices about whether they can continue to provide necessary services or whether they can continue at all. Residents should consider whether their towns—like Jennings, Wellston, Black Jack, and many others—can reduce spending and combine services. It may be that the best option for residents, and the region, is simply to disincorporate.