Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Dallas County looks to traffic ticket revenue for budget shortfall
It seems almost unfathomable to me that a majority of county revenue would come from fines and fees.
The February issue of Car and Driver includes a story describing how many jurisdictions are giving more traffic tickets as a revenue booster during tough financial times:
Some police officers, such as Sgt. Richard Lyons of Trenton, Michigan, say they don’t like being pressured to write more tickets.
“That’s not what I got into law enforcement for—to hand out chintzy tickets,” says Lyons, a 21-year veteran. “Things have changed from when I first started in this job. There was a time when you’d come in, do your job, and go home.
But I’ve never felt pressure to bring revenue to the city like we do now.
“It’s a whole different ball game now,” Lyons says. “They’re trying to use police officers to balance the budget on the backs of drivers, and it’s too bad. The people we count on to support us and help us when we’re on the road are the ones who end up paying the bills, and they’re ticked off about it. We might as well just go door to door and tell people, ‘Slide us $100 now since your 16-year-old is going to end up paying us anyway when he starts driving.’ You can’t blame people for getting upset.”
In Texas, to my mind, we've already taken this strategy about as far as it can go, to the point that, right now, more than 10% of Texas adults have outstanding arrest warrants - mostly for traffic tickets.
Dallas County represents perhaps the most extreme example of this trend in Texas. According to the Dallas Morning News ("Dallas county to vote on withholding vehicle registrations for those who owe fines," Feb. 9), "Unlike most counties, Dallas County gets slightly more than half of its annual revenue from fines and fees. Other counties rely more heavily on property-tax revenue."
Now Dallas plans to step up the pressure on even more on folks who can't or don't pay traffic fines, denying vehicle registration to drivers with outstanding traffic tickets. Again, we're talking about more than 10% of the adult population!
It seems almost unfathomable to me that a majority of county revenue would come from fines and fees. That's an untenable economic arrangement, but I suppose when more than 10% of adults owe fines, there's a deep well to draw from, though it's still crappy public policy.
This plan places revenue generation over public safety, boosting the number of unregistered vehicles on the road just to squeeze more cash out of drivers. Since many people don't pay mainly because traffic fines are so high and they can't afford it, there's little reason to believe everyone will automatically be able to come up with the money just because Dallas County won't register their vehicle.
More likely, more drivers will simply drive unregistered vehicles, which will cause them to accumulate more tickets they can't pay and creating a vicious cycle that makes the situation more chronic and intractable. And since Texas already holds up vehicle registration for drivers without auto insurance, the plan will almost certainly increase the number of uninsured drivers on the road. Just what we need, huh?
Texas cities have virtually no public transportation in most areas (Dallas' DART is well-used where it exists but extremely limited in scope), so essentially if you want to work you must own a car and drive. So people are going to continue to drive whether their vehicle is registered or not, because they have no other choice but unemployment and poverty.
According to my own quick, back of the envelope calculations, if 10% of Dallas drivers have outstanding traffic warrants, that's around 167,500 people. It's absurd to think a problem that large can be resolved by throwing scofflaws into the county jail or denying driving privileges to all of them. This plan seems like a terrible idea.
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