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Beyond budgets: New state law may force county municipalities to make major changes

traffic ticket
Chris Yarzab | Flickr

The 90 municipalities in St. Louis County are beginning to consider the impacts of new limits on their budgets that would be set by the passage Thursday of Senate Bill 5.

Gov. Jay Nixon is expected to sign the measure into law. The impact of its 23 pages won't be fully apparent for three years, but it's fairly clear already that things will look vastly different come Jan.1.

Municipal budgets

The bill caps the amount of money that cities and villages can collect from traffic fines and fees at 12.5 percent of a city's budget in St. Louis County, and 20 percent in the rest of the state. The current cap under the so-called Macks Creek law, named for a notorious speed trap in Camden County, stands at 30 percent.

Data provided by State Sen. Eric Schmitt showed at least 31 of the county's 90 municipalities breaking the new cap in the last few years, some by a factor of three or more.

One of those cities was Normandy, where Schmitt's data showed 41 percent of the 2013 budget coming from fines and fees. Mayor Patrick Green was defiant, calling Senate Bill 5 an attack on the freedom of cities to enforce traffic laws. In Bel-Ridge, which is known for a speed trap at Natural Bridge and Interstate 170, nearly 24 percent of the city's budget in 2013 came from traffic fines and fees. Rachel White, the chairman of the village board, said the 12.5 percent cap would certainly be "detrimental" to the city, but said she and her fellow lawmakers had yet to consider the changes they would have to make.

Matt Conley, the city administrator in St. Ann, near Lambert Airport, said a new retail development going in at the site of the old Northwest Plaza would help his city comply with the new revenue restrictions. He said the city also expects to collect less in traffic fines because a travel-safe zone along Interstate 70 that allowed for the doubling of fines for speeding and other offenses has expired. 

"It's basically a wash for us," Conley said. "But it's not going to be that way for a lot of cities. And I think one of the things that people have overlooked in all of this, is what is going to happen? You have a lot of small municipalities who come  next January are going to have to make some dramatic changes, and who is going to step in and fill those shoes when those cities can’t provide adequate police protection?"

Municipal standards

While SB5’s effort to lower the revenue cap received the most attention, an amendment from House Speaker John Diehl may prove to be far more impactful.

The Town and Country Republican added a host of minimum standards for St. Louis County municipalities. Among other things, a city would have three years to show it has:

  • A balanced annual budget listing anticipated revenues and expenditures;
  • An annual audit by a certified public accountant of the city’s finances;
  • Adequate levels of insurance;
  • A police department that’s accredited or certified by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies or the Missouri Police Chiefs Association. A town could also have a contract for police service with an accredited department;
  • Written policies regarding use of force by officers;
  • Written policies for collecting and reporting all crime and police stop data.

A city that isn't meeting those standards could be placed under the oversight of an administrative authority. Ultimately, a judge could also order a disincorporation election. Disincorporation elections would also occur automatically if a city fails to remit its excess traffic revenue to the Missouri Department of Revenue.

Incoming House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country
Credit File photo | Rebecca Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
Speaker John Diehl

The changes make it substantially easier to get rid of cities in St. Louis County. Currently, disincorporation proponents have to collect signatures and a 60 percent vote is needed for approval.

In a telephone interview, Diehl said he was always more concerned about the quality of a municipality, rather than how many there were.

"This has the potential, quite frankly, to be transformative on how some these local governments operate in certain areas of St. Louis County," Diehl said. "I want to stress that the goal is not to necessarily eliminate them. The goal is to make sure if you’re going to exist, that you meet certain minimal standards."

State Rep. Clem Smith represents a number of small cities in St. Louis County. The Velda Village Hills Democrat says he approves of the idea of minimum municipal standards – but added he doesn’t like how they only apply to St. Louis County cities. 

“I don’t think the minimum standards that are proposed in this bill are too out of whack,” Smith said in a telephone interview." But having insurance, having a community development plan, having adequate law enforcement to cover issues in your community -- that should be something that I believe that every community across the state should strive for."

Diehl has been pushing for minimum standards for St. Louis County municipalities since 2012. He said he often faced “very, very stiff opposition” from municipal officials on the issue.

"Everyone is trying to protect their own turf and their own little fiefdoms in this," he said. “And that’s part of the problem that you had in the past. I think what we have now and so much attention that’s being drawn to the light of some of these cities that lack transparency and accountability [that are] coupled with municipal court reforms."

“It was something that actually brought a lot of votes in the House for the municipal court reforms,” he added.

Municipal court reforms

Like the cities that created them, municipal courts will have to meet certain standards if Senate Bill 5 becomes law.

By the end of the year, the 80 municipal judges will have to certify that their courts have in place certain procedures, including:

  • Allowing every defendant to be heard by a judge within 48 hours for traffic violations and 72 hours for other offenses;
  • Basing the amount of a fine or fee on the ability of an individual to pay;
  • Eliminating failure-to-appear charges;
  • Setting up payments plans or alternative community service options;
  • Holding court in a space big enough to accommodate the public, defendants and attorneys.

Frank Vatterott, the municipal judge in Overland and chair of the St. Louis County Municipal Court Improvement Committee, said the new standards will force a judge to pay more attention to what goes on in his or her courtroom.

Protesters outside St. Louis County headquarters on Feb. 2, 2015 call for reforms of the municipal court system.
Credit File photo by Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio
Protesters outside St. Louis County headquarters on Feb. 2, 2015, call for reforms of the municipal court system.

"The judge has had to rely upon someone taking care of things during the days that the judge isn’t there, and sometimes that’s where the problem has been," Vatterott said. 

In a statement, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment commended the lawmakers for taking a small step. 

"We want to acknowledge how important this is for hundreds of thousands of people in St. Louis County facing jail time, who can now not worry about losing their jobs," said Jeff Ordower, the executive director of MORE. "In addition, MORE will continue to advocate for the abolition of these racist municipal courts." The group has also proposed its own reforms.

The chart: The information that was used in the legislature -- provided by Sen. Eric Schmitt's office -- did not include St. Louis municipalities that do not have municipal courts or some that did not get any fine revenue. Data was not usable for Bel-Nor. And was incomplete for Kinloch.


Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.
Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.