Monday, November 30, 2020

Will Busted Municipalities Use Covid Non-Compliance Fines To Gin Up Revenues?

taibbi |   The most penniless residents of the St. Louis exurb were written up for everything from actual crimes to municipal code violations like “High Grass and Weeds,” “Barking Dog,” and “Dog Running at Large.” Between 2010 and 2014, the city wrote up 90,000 summonses and citations, and the number in the last year of that period was double what it was in the first year. Either crime and dog-barking were skyrocketing, or police were experiencing more pressure to write tickets. As the report wrote:

The City’s emphasis on revenue generation has a profound effect on FPD’s approach to law enforcement. Patrol assignments and schedules are geared toward aggressive enforcement of Ferguson’s municipal code, with insufficient thought given to whether enforcement strategies promote public safety or unnecessarily undermine community trust and cooperation… The result is a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and arrests without probable cause…

For a lot of Americans, this was the first time they were introduced to the idea that cash-strapped municipalities were using the justice system as a means of generating revenue. The grotesque angle was that cities were so desperate that they were reduced to systematically ticketing people who couldn’t pay.


Taibbi’s Iowa for criminal justice “fees.” Hard to believe that the Midwest used to be truly innovative and “progressive” once upon a time. Hollowed out, the state and local municipal elites cannibalize their institutions and their populace at the altar of the local financial elites who decided to hollow them out in the first place. I know they’re making choices on the winners and the losers so they can maintain their own hierarchy. But if you cannibalize your state and regional areas long enough, and even that little bit of hierarchy these careerist political elites manage to maintain can be taken away once they are no longer needed to manage the decline. 

That whole ‘tax breaks for jobs’ filtered down to even poorly paid, seasonal, or short term jobs. Think of the tax abatements local cities give to a Walmart or Amazon warehouse center; with the poor pay, the large infrastructure costs the city bears, and the lost tax revenue the local property owners end up paying for the tax abatements with rises in their property tax. (Until the city is faced with revolt by the voters for ever increasing property tax.) Then there’s the loss of Main St. jobs that the giant chains displaced.

Now it’s the big national, usually out-of-state, apartment complex developers asking for, and in many cases receiving huge property tax abatements to develop (in many cases “excess) complexes. The local property tax can’t be raised much higher to cover the lost tax revenues to the city, and the city is on the supporting end for roads, water, and electricity infrastructure. The profits from these complexes then leave the city and most often even the state. The jobs created for construction are short term. 

It’s a next loss to the city’s tax base. It’s a gift to giant real estate developers. One of the lures the developers in my area use is that their apartments are so great that they’ll attract the “creative class” to live here, and of course “every city needs to attract the creative class”. Sure. Right. It doesn’t take many of these to punch large holes in a city budget.

So, here we are. In the name of “build it and they will come” cities and counties and even states have wrecked their budgets, and now they’re increasing turning to fines and fees, too often from the poorest and defenseless, to try making up the shortfall.  I’d love to see every city, county, state examine all the tax abatements for businesses they’ve given out over the past 20-30 years and examine which ones of what type have actually improved their budgets and economy, and which have been a net loss to their budgets.