Michael Brown’s death uncovered a number of problems with the racial turmoil in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, but it also uncovered a more technical problem. The city made a substantial amount of its revenue from white police officers who disproportionately levied fines on black residents. But the racial disparities aside (and it is difficult to put them aside), citizens have been taxed in a secretive manner by municipalities in financial trouble.
On Oct.1, CBS News reported that the city of Waldo, Florida, a 2.71 square mile speed trap disbanded its Police Department after a furor over fines. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement discovered that the seven officers who used to work in Waldo’s Police Department wrote an estimated 12,000 tickets which raised $396,722 out of the city’s budget of $4.4 million.
Further inspection of the city’s financial report from 2013, shows that the city expected and budgeted for its Police Department to raise $420,000.
The loss of revenue from tickets and fines proved to be unrecoverable for the city of Moffett, Oklahoma in 2007. In 2007, the state attorney general of Oklahoma barred the city from ticket issuance and the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy. Data from the Public Safety Department show tickets and fines made up $219,626 of the city’s budget of $297,000 in 2003.
Law enforcement is the new tax man.
Much of this is due to municipalities who have had to deal with the consequences of a bust in the real estate market which depressed property tax revenues. However, for the city of Waldo, the city of Moffett, and others like them the problem is worse. The money from tickets and fines from law enforcement officials came to be considered stable revenue. It was expected, annually.
The city of Moffett declared bankruptcy once that revenue source was taken away from it, which meant at the time it was insolvent or couldn’t payout claims as they became due. In Moffett, more money was raised from punitive measures than from tax collections.
Of course, the recipients of those tickets and fines, or secretive tax bills, probably did commit the crime. But these were small infractions, unworthy of hefty fines, certainly not upon the first offense. More importantly, the context of these kinds of situations matter.
And the context is that these kind of aggressive collection techniques tend to only be employed where citizens hardly have the means to pay, let alone defend themselves in court.
Median household income in the city of Waldo is $28,167. For the city of Moffett median household income is $16,875. In the city of Ferguson, median household income is $37,134.
Sixteen thousand dollars or $37,000 is a far cry from the amount needed to hire a lawyer, or to be able to take time from work to appear in court.
Our cities and towns are under financial distress, and understandably so. But local government is where citizens are supposed to have the most control over the taxes and expenses of their governments. They elect a candidate who will raise taxes or cut taxes, increase expenses or decrease expenses, regardless, they’re aware of the deal. The broad use of tickets and fines is a secretive and illegitimate way to extract money out of citizens who probably don’t have much to extract – and who are least likely to exert the control that they have.
Moreover, it adds an unwanted element to the duties of law enforcement officers, who are supposed to serve and protect, rather than ticket a