Missouri Town Government Sued for Using Housing Violations to Increase Revenue
A Missouri city is being sued for bringing in revenue on the backs of its poorer residents by ticketing them for infractions such as not mowing their lawns.
Officials in Pagedale, Missouri, not far from Ferguson, ticket residents for infractions such as unmowed lawns, toys in the front yard, mismatched window coverings, a fallen tree limb, basketball hoops in the street, and not having pants pulled up high enough. The number of tickets issued for such violations has increased 495% in the city since 2010, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They result in people, many of them elderly, owing thousands of dollars to the city in fines for housing violations they were already struggling to afford to fix. Some people have even been briefly jailed for missing court appearances connected with the violations.
Now residents are fighting back, and a Virginia-based libertarian group is helping them do that. The Institute for Justice filed a civil rights complaint against Pagedale in U.S. District Court. The complaint accuses the city of violating due process and excess-fines protections in the Constitution by turning its code enforcement and municipal court into “revenue-generating machines” to go after residents, according to The New York Times.
“We hope that if the court agrees with us, the residents of Pagedale will no longer be treated as walking cash machines by their city government and that the city will limit its regulatory authority to things that actually affect health or safety,” the institute’s William R. Maurer told the Times.
Housing violation tickets are not subject to Missouri’s recently lowered limit on the revenue a city may bring in from traffic fines, which was instituted after the Ferguson protests. Cities are using such tactics to increase revenue because of the increasing reluctance, or inability, to raise taxes. As a result, money is raised from those who have the least political power and are usually the least able to afford it.
Pagedale is not the only St. Louis County city to use this method of bringing in revenue. The Post-Dispatch found several other municipalities that slap residents with fines for minor infractions.
The city of Ferguson is now forbidden from making more than 12.5% of its income from traffic fines, so it’s been working hard to develop new revenue sources that put the squeeze on its citizens. One of those citizens, Maria Hill, told the Post-Dispatch that city officials “are notorious” for piling on tickets. She spoke of one city inspector who comes to her home to measure the grass in her yard. “He’ll get out of the car with his ruler,” she told the paper.
In Pagedale, residents are ticketed just for standing on the street. The city code forbids “hanging around … spending time idly.”
To Learn More:
Lawsuit Accuses Missouri City of Fining Homeowners to Raise Revenue (by Monica Davey, New York Times)
Municipalities Ticket for Trees and Toys, as Traffic Revenue Declines (by Jennifer S. Mann, St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
Seizing Citizens’ Property as a Revenue Source for Law Enforcement (by Noel Brinkerhoff and Danny Biederman, AllGov)
Cities Increase Revenues by Shortening Yellow Lights, but Risk More Accidents (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)
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