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Ferguson and presidential politics: A look at Rand Paul's assumptions

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, claimed that a third of Ferguson's budget was derived from civil fines. That statement is not true.
Flickr I ambientjohn
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, claimed that a third of Ferguson's budget was derived from civil fines. That statement is not true.

As voters in Iowa head off to caucus, a GOP presidential contender touched on the Ferguson unrest in the party's most recent debate. But U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's assertion about Ferguson's budgetary practices isn't lining up with the facts.

During last week’s GOP presidential debate, the Kentucky Republican senator was asked about expanding body cameras for police officers. Here's what Paul said:

“I’ve been to Ferguson. I’ve been trying to look for solutions to our criminal justice problem. One of the things I discovered in Ferguson was that a third of the budget from the city of Ferguson was being reaped by civil fines,” Paul said. “People were just being fined to death. Now you and I and many people in this audience, we can survive it. But if you’re living on the edge of poverty with a $100 fine or your car towed, a lot of times you lose your job.”

Paul's assertion that "a third of the budget of the city of Ferguson was reaped by civil fines" is not accurate.

Based on the city’s budgetary documents from the past couple of years, Ferguson hasn’t even come close to getting a third of its budget from fines. And it doesn't matter how this data is examined: Ferguson doesn't reach that 33 percent threshold when comparing its fine revenue to the city's total budget or just the city's general operating revenue.

For instance: During the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years, the city derived roughly 13 percent of its total budget from fines. And according to documents sent to state Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office in late January, fines from minor traffic violations constituted 9.2 percent of Ferguson’s general operating revenue during the 2015 fiscal year.

An accompanying letter from Ferguson director of finance Jeffrey Blume stated the city “included all fine and forfeiture related revenue in its calculation because it is not currently in a position to determine includable versus excludable revenues.” (What Blume appears to be talking about is how a new state law, known as Senate Bill 5 or SB5, places a 12.5 percent budgetary cap on traffic fine revenue. But it appears from the letter that the percentage given to Galloway’s office includes all fines and forfeitures.)

“Therefore, [Ferguson] has taken the conservative position of assuming that all court related revenues are includable,” Blume wrote. “This has resulted in a revenue percentage of 9.2 percent, substantially less than the current ceiling of 30 percent or even the prospective ceiling of 12.5 percent to be required by [a new state law] later this year.”

Galloway spokeswoman GenaTerlizzi emphasized that Ferguson’s numbers haven't been audited yet. She also said Galloway is auditing Ferguson’s municipal court. Several messages to Paul’s campaign spokesman were not returned.

A long-running misconception

Ferguson’s government came under heavy criticism after Michael Brown’s death. The Department of Justice released a scathing report last year accusing the city's police department of being overly focused on revenue collection. And as a result, the Ferguson City Council is mulling over whether to ratify a consent decree with the Department of Justice reshaping its governmental practices.

Buteven though the unrest was a big catalyst to pass Senate Bill 5, the new traffic revenue caps aren't likely to impact Ferguson that much. That's because the city has a relatively diversified revenue stream, especially compared to less affluent St. Louis County municipalities that are primarily residential.

(In fact, the citiesthat could be most affected by the new fine revenue cap are predominantly African-American municipalities in north St. Louis County. Some of harshest critics of SB5 have been black elected officials –and some have joined a lawsuit to try and strike the new law down.)

With that in mind, officials such as Ferguson City Manager De’CarlonSeewood have continually pushed back against the idea that Ferguson's budget is mainly composed of fine revenue.

“I think there’s a misnomer that Ferguson had 50 percent or 70 percent of their budget was fine,” Seewood said in December. "It’s actually a very low part of the budget.”

Added Ferguson Mayor James Knowles last year: "The narratives that national media and others have made about the city of Ferguson ... really don’t match up with the city of Ferguson. But they do match issues in the greater St. Louis area. I think Ferguson has become a symbol. Anytime I read anymore, whether or not it ‘affects Ferguson,’ I just take it as they mean the symbol and not the city.”

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