Oddities in St. Louis County that led to tensions: significant revenues from fines, permissive incorporation laws

Radley Balko points out some interesting features of St. Louis County, Missouri that contribute to racial and socioeconomic disparities:

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts. A majority of these fines are for traffic offenses, but they can also include fines for fare-hopping on MetroLink (St. Louis’s light rail system), loud music and other noise ordinance violations, zoning violations for uncut grass or unkempt property, violations of occupancy permit restrictions, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” business license violations and vague infractions such as “disturbing the peace” or “affray” that give police officers a great deal of discretion to look for other violations. In a white paper released last month (PDF), the ArchCity Defenders found a large group of people outside the courthouse in Bel-Ridge who had been fined for not subscribing to the town’s only approved garbage collection service. They hadn’t been fined for having trash on their property, only for not paying for the only legal method the town had designated for disposing of trash…There are many towns in St. Louis County where the number of outstanding arrest warrants can exceed the number of residents, sometimes several times over. No town in Jackson County comes close to that: The highest ratios are in the towns of Grandview (about one warrant for every 3.7 residents), Independence (one warrant for every 3.5 residents), and Kansas City itself (one warrant for every 1.8 residents)…

Sales taxes are the primary source of revenue in most St. Louis County municipalities. Wealthier areas naturally see more retail sales, so the more affluent towns tend to be less reliant on municipal courts to generate revenue. In recent years a state pool was established to distribute sales taxes more evenly, but existing towns were permitted to opt out. Most did, of course. Perversely, this means that the collection of poorer towns stacked up along the east-west byways are far more reliant on municipal court revenues. That means they face much stronger incentives to squeeze their residents with fines, despite the fact that the residents of these towns are the people who are least likely to have the money to pay those fines, the least likely to have an attorney to fight the fines on their behalf, and for whom the consequences of failing to pay the fines can be the most damaging…

“Until only relatively recently, the state of Missouri had almost no rules for municipal incorporation,” Gordon says. “In just about every other state, when a new new subdivision would spring up in an unincorporated area, the state would say, ‘If you want public services, you need to be annexed by the nearest town.’ In Missouri, you didn’t have that.”…

“The state’s one requirement before giving you the power to zone was that you had to incorporate and draw up a city plan,” Gordon says. “That plan could be as simple as getting an engineer to slap a ‘single family’ zone over the entire development. Your subdivision is now a town.”

Some interesting individual cases – of both individuals penalized and municipalities acting badly – interwoven throughout the piece. But, a complex maze of issues: a number of communities with limited tax bases which leads to a heavier reliance on fines, hitting residents with multiple penalties, and incorporation laws that led to a lot of small communities that can set up their own systems and struggle (or if wealthier, thrive) on their own.

While it might be temping to these issues as separate and important issues in their own right, I was struck that this is the sort of system that arises when white and wealthier residents are determined to keep poorer and non-white residents out. This goal was widespread in the American suburbs after World War II but it sounds this mix of communities outside of St. Louis was able to put together a potent system for keeping blacks in other suburbs. Even with civil rights legislation, there are still plenty of “legal” means to limit or harass non-white residents in such a way to keep them out of white and/or wealthier suburbs.

4 thoughts on “Oddities in St. Louis County that led to tensions: significant revenues from fines, permissive incorporation laws

  1. Pingback: Ferguson doesn’t get much revenue from the Fortune 500 companies in town | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Why suburbanites want to have their own police departments and local governments | Legally Sociable

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