Under Pressure from SB 5, Charlack May Disband Police Force
For many years, the small north Saint Louis County municipality of Charlack (population 1,366), has relied heavily on traffic fines to run its city government. The micro-city has used its position along busy Interstate 170 to pull in millions of dollars in traffic fines over the years. Its questionable policing practices have long drawn the ire of regional residents, including former Show-Me Institute intern David Stokes, who wrote in 2010:
“The Post-Dispatch reports today that the city of Charlack is installing speed cameras along I-170 in near-north St. Louis County. The city is installing the camera on a state-owned bridge to give tickets for speeding on a federal/state highway. . . . The idea that the city will phase out the cameras once people drive more slowly is perhaps the most unbelievable statement I've heard a politician say in a long time. And who cares if they passed a budget that did not count on camera fines? All that means is that they can spend the money however they want once it starts flowing in.”
As of 2014, Charlack collected more than 20% of its total revenue from fines and fees.
But with the passage of SB 5, which caps Saint Louis County municipalities' fine revenue to 12.5% of general revenue, Charlack is in trouble. In fact, the Post-Dispatch recently reported that the city’s police force was on the verge of disbanding. The city council plans to vote on joining the North County Police Cooperative (with Vinita Terrace, Vinita Park, and Wellston).
Charlack is not alone in its predicament. As of 2014, 24 of Saint Louis County’s 90 municipalities collected more than 12.5% of their general revenue from fines and fees. And while some can continue to provide services despite the reduction in fine revenue, many cannot. They will have to combine services such as policing in order to survive.
The good news is that sharing policing and other public services among cities is far from unprecedented in Saint Louis County. An example of pooling services is the aforementioned North County Police Cooperative. But in addition to that group, 17 municipalities contract with Saint Louis County, and a further 16 contract with another city for police, as shown in the map above.
When municipalities combine police services (especially with the County government), they can save money, improve services, and reduce incentives to use policing as a method of generating revenue. Charlack’s move towards disbanding may be long overdue, but it is another sign of the positive impact SB 5’s reforms are having. As the Charlack’s mayor put it:
“With Sentate Bill 5 passing, we knew it was going to be inevitable, and instead of it taking the next six months to figure out, we said, ‘Let’s just do it now and everybody can have a Merry Christmas…’ ”
Let’s hope that other municipalities follow Charlack’s example—because the more, the merrier.