Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"Fines and Public Safety" in Ferguson: Red Flags in Local Government Revenue Structure

Last summer, violence in Ferguson, MO sparked a national conversation about the relationship between our communities and our police. However, the tension and explosion we witnessed in Ferguson aren't solely the fault of poor policing practices and overt racism - the roles bad planning, bad governance, and an untenable local revenue structure had in contributing to the nightmare should not be ignored.

The St. Louis suburb exploded in the 1950's as a haven for whites escaping the central cities. The explosion of population resulted in massive housing construction in a short period, and Ferguson's decline coincided with the decline of its housing stock. As the housing aged, the city lost its luster and in the 1980s, residents began to leave the city in droves. With a decreasing tax base, the quality of services - especially schools - began to decline as real incomes fell.

Faced with ever-smaller revenues from traditional sources like property and sales tax, the city turned to another source to make up the shortfall - fines. The budget below, taken from the City of Ferguson's financial records, shows that "fines and public safety" in 2013 made up nearly 20% of revenues generated by the city.

A report from the US Justice Department found a 50% increase in citations from 2010 to 2014. Attorney General Eric Holder called the police force "a system primed for maximizing revenue" and "a collection agency." Even more sickening, the DOJ uncovered an email in which the police chief bragged about his department's most profitable month in four years - to which the city manager responded, "Wonderful!"

The massive increase in fines contributed to a heightened level of distrust between Ferguson's citizens and police force, which ultimately boiled over in the worst possible way. The city's choice to actively pursue fines as a source of revenue is outrageous and indefensible, but it serves as the emblem of America's failed cities left with nowhere to turn.

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