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Schmitt seeks to expand new municipal overhaul measure

Sen. Eric Schmitt
Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Eric Schmitt sponsored last session's successful push to limit municipal revenue from traffic fines.

A Republican lawmaker is taking another look at how municipalities govern themselves around the state — and especially in St. Louis County.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Glendale, handled legislation passed in the spring that reduced the percentage of traffic fine revenue cities could have in their budgets. But the legislation did not restrict non-traffic revenue, such as fines for not keeping up a property. (The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed that out earlier this year).

Schmitt’s pre-filed bill,according to a release from his office, would “limit how much revenue they can keep from not only traffic violations, but also other ordinance violations — such as letting your grass grow too high.”

“It is unconscionable cities would use fine money — whether from traffic tickets or silly violations like the location of one’s barbecue grill or the way their blinds are hanging — to prop up bloated bureaucracies,” Schmitt said in a statement. “It is also disturbing to me to know that local bureaucrats are roaming neighborhoods looking at the yards and windows of private homes seeking new revenue. Missourians have had enough of the big government mentality of small governments who are shaking down residents, especially poor and disadvantaged citizens, to prop up their budgets and hold onto power."

During an interview in mid-November, Schmitt contended that aggressive ticketing for ordinance violations “is the same kind of abuse which uses people and citizens as nothing more than ATMs.”

“And that’s sadly how some of these cities view the people that live there,” Schmitt said. “And sadly, it is quite frankly primarily poor and primarily African-American residents of their communities. And so, I will continue to fight for those people. And if this abuse has manifested itself in another way, absolutely — all options are on the table for 2016.”

'I’m interested in eliminating you'

Schmitt’s broader municipal overhaul legislation received bipartisan approval and was signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon. It’s arguably the most significant legislative achievement in response to the Ferguson unrest.

Normandy Mayor Patrick Green and Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Normandy Mayor Patrick Green and Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy

But a group of primarily African-American-led cities are challenging the new law in court, contending it’s unconstitutional that St. Louis County cities have stricter revenue restrictions than the rest of the state. The leaders of two of those towns took a dim view of Schmitt’s legislation.

“I think him putting this in here validates his attempt to say ‘I’m not interested in what’s best for you. I’m interested in eliminating you,’” said Normandy Mayor Patrick Green.

Cool Valley Mayor Viola Murphy said her residents often come to council meetings “to complain about a property that is not being taken care of.” She said enforcing ordinances is an example of “better governance.”

“That’s what we do with code enforcement,” Murphy said. “We’re no different from Chesterfield. We want our communities to look good. We want our communities to be a place that people want to move into. We all give warnings. We all try to work with the homeowner, no matter if it’s a renter in there.

“We are trying at every level to improve where we live,” she added. “But we’re being attacked for doing it. No matter what we do. There are people that find something wrong.”

Schmitt’s bill elicits an obvious question: If a city government is being too aggressive in enforcing ordinances, wouldn’t it be possible for the town’s voters to oust elected officials and replace them with people that are less-ticket happy?

When asked about that last week, Schmitt alluded to how small municipalities often have elections with dismal turnout. He noted that fewer than 70 people voted in Edmundson elections to raise two types of taxes.

“So yeah, that is one way. You can vote people out of office,” Schmitt said. “Another way is you can say ‘if this abuse continues,’ we’re going to disincorporate. Or demand that those officials look for better options.”

(Schmitt was referring to new requirements for automatic disincorporation elections for St. Louis County cities that run afoul of the revenue caps in the new law.)

“What we finally have now is an option for a better way,” Schmitt said. “Because we’re forcing cities to look at solutions (rather than) just putting up a speed trap or now evidently citing people for having a barbeque in their front yard or having tomatoes in a side yard or whatever these ridiculous schemes that have been dreamed up by bureaucrats that don’t want to make tough decisions. That’s what is at stake.”  

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.