As Wealth and Residents Flee, St. Louis County Munis Turn to Fines and Fees

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Many towns in St. Louis County are stagnating. Their fragile auto-oriented built environments are under constant pressure from the rip tide of sprawl fueled by infrastructure subsidies on the edges of the metro area. The sprawl ball keeps on bouncing, landing in St. Louis County for most of the last century making it easy to celebrate the new, often at the expense of the separate city, and ignoring mounting liabilities (Metropolitan Sewer District $4.7B, water $680M, etc).

Over the last few decades increasingly that “growth” has occurred outside St. Louis County. Since 1970, the county has seen little population growth. As population and wealth leave the county, we see more and more signs of desperation. Many towns have plugged budget holes by raising sales taxes and using Tax Increment Financing to lure the next big box away from another town. Reliance on sales taxes has been a poor bet.

Wealth Migration - STL County/City 1992-2011{personal wealth migration, a proxy for overall taxes generated shows a City/County exodus}

Municipalities that have lost the TIF wars or who can’t play altogether refuse to give up. They found a way – extract revenues via court fines and fees. Rev B. T. Rice has been sounding the alarm for years. Arch City Defenders, in response to its work helping people deal with municipal courts, has published a report focusing on three St. Louis County municipalities: Bel-Ridge, Ferguson, and Florissant. The report was nearly complete before August 9th and released it just as protests ignited after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

The picture became clearer as to how the frustration among protesters goes beyond the latest shooting. Arch Defenders is now suing the village of Bel-Ridge, claiming it lost jurisdiction over traffic offenses because it didn’t submit financial reports to the Missouri auditor’s office on time. Radley Balko of the Washington Post penned a devastating indictment of the system in September and followed-up last week in reaction to criminal defense attorney David Menschel’s live-tweeting from two of the municipal courts. Both are must reads. The Making of Ferguson by Richard Rothstein and the book Mapping Decline by Colin Gordon chronicle how government housing, land-use, and transportation policies shaped St. Louis and contributed to present-day circumstances.

The local group Better Together recently examined all municipal courts in St. Louis City and County. It found the county’s 90 municipalities, despite being home to just 11% of Missouri’s population, took in 34% of all court fines and fees in the state in 2013. Better Together also showed that in Ferguson, as assessed property values plummeted during the recession, court fines and fees skyrocketed, up 84% 2010-2013.

Court fines and fees for 21 St. Louis County Municipalities - 2008 v 2013

The Great Recession impacted revenue sources for governments at all levels. Towns in St. Louis County were no exception. Comparing municipal court fines and fees from 2008 to 2013 reveals the shining star among the malaise. In St. Louis City, St. Louis County, and its 90 municipalities court fines and fees were up 20% during that period. Among the 90 municipalities they were up 23%. Court fines and fees were up 86% among the 21 that currently raise over 20% of their revenue from them.

St. Ann, hit hard by the vacancy of 1.8M sf Northwest Plaza, increased its court fines and fees by 300%. Normandy up 407%. And perhaps the most down-on-its-luck town in the region, Wellston, increased fine and fee revenue from $10,648 to an astounding $378,228, over the same period.

Population Migration - STL County/City 1992-2011{wealth migration is one outcome of population migration}

Tax increases require a public vote due to Missouri’s Hancock Amendment, which imposes limits on revenue increases. A tax increase is politically tough, let alone asking for additional taxes when it’s clear previous taxes have not been enough. Court fines and fees do not face the same limitations. They can keep going up and up. This allowed some towns to survive the recession. What will they do to survive the next one?

Where will the next revenue stream for these struggling municipalities be found? Sales tax revenue is down, and places like Chesterfield, where two massive outlet malls were recently built, are fighting to hoard every bit for themselves. Court fees and fines cannot continue to grow as population and wealth flee. Property taxes are being decimated as well. Earnings taxes are banned by statute.

The Post-Dispatch recently created two maps putting in stark relief the massive challenge facing North County. In the first three years of this decade, foreclosures and bank sales of property hit North County particularly hard. Residential assessed values plummeted as well. Theses maps remind us that the issues in Ferguson are widespread.

The built environment of our suburban landscape requires increasingly massive reinvestment. Some places appear able to pay these balloon payments on aging roads, bridges, water pipes, and more. Other places continue to see disinvestment. The St. Louis region is too diffuse for public transit to effectively serve areas such as North County. Areas of growing poverty are car-dependent, an expense that perpetuates economic hardship.

{Lindbergh and Page. Drive or take the bus? From Google Streetview}

Some cities are coping poorly with overwhelming challenges, with few options to confront them. Rather than giving up, they turned to the most tyrannical and dysfunctional way imaginable to shore up finances. Perhaps court fines and fees should be pooled. Or fines derived from violations on state roads should go to cash-strapped MoDOT to maintain them. Or maybe, just maybe, some of these towns should merge or disincorporate.

STL City, County, St. Charles County Population 1950-2010

Court Fines and Fees Collected by 21 St. Louis County Municpalities 2008 v. 2013 by nextSTL.com

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  • matimal

    Can you imagine what the ANTI-urban crowd in St. louis thinks if this is the pro-urban crowd? Good god!

  • matimal

    The yellows and blues on the map show us exactly why Ferguson happened. Ferguson happened because St. Louis is changing, NOT because it’s staying the same. It happened because people are moving and prices are rising and falling, NOT because things are hopelessly stagnant.

  • If upcoming riots happen (as expected) more and more people will flee St. Louis County towards the exurbs. The St. Louis municipal model is fundamentally flawed and the people in power have no real reason to push for the change; because changing it would force them to lose their little fiefdom. If any positive comes out of of the horrible Michael Brown situation, perhaps it pushes people to realize how flawed it is to have a police force, judge, and city leadership for a small area that would be much better served by a central city government.

    Alex, you mentioned St. Ann losing NW Plaza, but you didn’t mention the worsening of the situation by Bridgeton giving Walmart TIFs to move two miles down St. Charles Rock Road into Bridgeton causing St Ann to lose one of their remaining tax providing large businesses. Municipalities cannot continue to compete against their neighbors in this way.

    • stldoc

      Everything you said is spot on. One exception, and maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I don’t think the Michael Brown ruling will cause riots. Definitely protests and maybe a few isolated incidents of people acting like idiots but I think the media and public are making it out to be way more than what will actually transpire.

      • I really hope you are correct. Based on the vitriol I’ve seen, I’m doubtful.

    • matimal

      then why all the new investment in the central Corridor? Is that money managed by fools?

      • is all of the money you mentioned invested since August 9, 2014 and now? Deals take a while to put together. My prediction of people fleeing the county is based upon the outcomes of other cities’ riots. Notably Detroit, Newark and LA.

        I sincerely hope riots don’t happen. I hope people don’t flee the county, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they happen. North County could see a mass exodus if riots are as bad as the riots following Rodney King verdict.

        • matimal

          Apples and oranges. Cities need to be understood on their own terms. The areas of Cincinnati’s ‘riot’ has been massively gentrified BECAUSE of the response to the ‘riot’. The story of Ferguson is the story of suburbanizing poverty, not of urban decay.

  • stldoc

    I’d wager that in recent years in the city that wealth arrow has reversed and more wealth is entering the city from the suburbs than leaving it.

    • I’d wager you’re wrong. The census estimates indicates a slight downturn in population between 2010 and 2013 and a slight downturn in number of workers. Anecdotally, a lot of my friends who moved to the city in their twenties in the early aughts, moved back to the county in the late aughts once they started having kids and realized that safety and schools were requirements. The exceptions are friends who live in South city who send their kids to private schools.

      http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/29/29510.html

      • Adam

        while the link estimates that the city lost ~900 people between 2010 and 2013 it also shows that median household income has increased by ~$13,000.

        • Missed that. Good call. I hope both (wealth and population) improve in the city and county. I’m cynical about current leadership, but happy to be wrong.

          • rst1317

            I would recommend ignoring population when it comes to evaluating the health of a community.

        • John R

          Based on the small estimated loss of recent years, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a census estimate that we gained people in ’14 as building permits for both new and rehab multifamily apartments have really accelerated over the past 18 months. In fact, 2014 ytd performance has been significantly better than any year in the naughts so far with the exception of high-flying 2005.

        • matimal

          One household of $100,000 equals 10 $ 10,000 households. Yes there are $10,000 households. Many. Some are moving to Ferguson.

      • John R

        Anecdottally, you’re aging and don’t know the younger people who have taken the place of your minivan driving friends! (Just razzin you a bit!)

      • John R

        Anecdottally, you’re aging and don’t know the younger people who have taken the place of your minivan driving friends! (Just razzin you a bit!)

      • stldoc

        With the increases in the percentage of college educated residents and the dramatic investments in the central corridor and south city neighborhoods it would be close. The loss of jobs downtown hasn’t helped but the jobs future is looking brighter with the thousands of jobs expected in Cortex and hopefully the downtown start up scene will continue to grow and some future bigger companies/employers will sprout up from the numerous start ups.

        Many of our friends that moved into the city in their 20’s also headed back west after kids. However, more and more are staying. I know on our block there are 12 more kids than there was 3 years ago when we moved in and many of those kids are attending charter schools that didn’t exist 5 or 6 years ago. The drastically changing landscape in public education in the city is big. I think it is possible in the near future for Saint Louis to become a magnet for families from the suburbs because of the diversity of good school options. We know two families that specifically move into the city for a specific public charter school (not as many as we know that left for that same reason). But if the trend continues, and it should, …talk about a game changer. But at the end of the day, I agree the net plus or negative from the city in recent years could be close but there is no denying that after 60 years of disinvestment that the pendulum has moved back toward the city.

        • This sounds hopeful and I hope it’s right. In reality, it’s a distraction from the larger issue (mentioned in post above) that we wouldn’t care who was moving from the county to city and back again if it was one city. We’d have less people getting fined by kangaroo courts and we wouldn’t have small munis trying to make up for shrinking tax bases by over ticketing their population.

        • Alex Ihnen

          What we know empirically is that for the first time in a very long time, St. Louis City has a significant net positive migration of 20-29yos. That age group leaves American cities are very nearly the same rate, whether it be San Francisco, Boston, or St. Louis. The differentiator is the raw number being attracted – leading to a larger raw number being retained. Of course, GenX was the first generation to reverse the negative migration trend among young adults, but we get no credit! 🙂

          https://nextstl.com/2014/01/millennials-saving-st-louis/

      • Guest

        Just because your friends did that doesn’t mean everyone else is doing it. Every time I drive the city it’s so refreshing to see so many young people. St. Louis for the most part is far safer and spiffing up more and more with all the rehab and infill (admittedly some new projects fall far short in urban aesthetic) going on. A little drive around in the city and a person can easily see that.
        You mentioned schools. Did you miss the post here about the city schools a couple weeks ago?

        That being said, I’m still completely confused as to why “the sentiment that be” in metro St. Louis is STILL “the suburbs are better and safer” when any desirable city in the country has for decades realized the importance of it’s central core…the architecture, the street grid, public transportation, and most importantly, diversity…and have long ago addressed those issues and answered the call of the ever growing urban minded. Strangely, it seems to be rather recent and not all that important to too many St. Louis suburbanites, when really, it’s quite simply very important. That is, unless you prefer living in a suburb of a city that’s to be avoided at all costs. Does that sentiment even make any sense? If so, then those who do would be incredibly ignorant of how successful cities work.

        • I cited ACTUAL data of the city losing people (small amount) mind you, not just anecdotes. Driving around seeing young people doesn’t mean outweigh actual data. If the city population is on an uptick, awesome.

          Regarding this:

          “I’m still completely confused as to why “the sentiment that be” in metro St. Louis is STILL “the suburbs are better and safer””

          you might not like the sentiment, but the suburbs are much safer. Actual crime numbers prove this out. Here is current crime numbers for the city. Compare the city and county numbers and they aren’t that close: http://www.slmpd.org/crimestats/CRM0013-BY_201410.pdf
          http://maps.stlouisco.com/police/stats/2014-08.pdf

          If you use their interactive map by STLCo you only see 7 murders for the year to date. Vs 130 (YTD) in the city. People really want to blame the crime stats on the city’s population. But this mentality drives me nuts because it seems to act like the crime doesn’t exist, when it really does. Yes the numbers would look much better skewed against the whole metro population, but 130 murders in the city limits is concerning. As is 2757 aggravated assaults in 10 months.

      • As a parent of two school-age children who not only lives in the city but lives downtown, I can assure you that things are changing rapidly (for the better). While the situation with SLPS still mostly sucks, there are other great alternatives in the magnet and charter schools. Over the past two years, in particular, I’ve seen more of a willingness, on the part of parents, to ‘find a way’ here in the city as the benefits of an urban lifestyle have become increasingly attractive.

    • I’d wager you’re wrong. The census estimates indicates a slight downturn in population between 2010 and 2013 and a slight downturn in number of workers. Anecdotally, a lot of my friends who moved to the city in their twenties in the early aughts, moved back to the county in the late aughts once they started having kids and realized that safety and schools were requirements. The exceptions are friends who live in South city who send their kids to private schools.

      http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/29/29510.html

    • Alex Ihnen

      I think that’s very possible, even likely. City population may or may not be increasing, but there certainly is a decreasing rate of loss (at the least). There is also a documented increase in median income. Whether or not that’s enough to offset population loss, I don’t know.

  • craigstl

    Can someone please explain better together to me? The county has 90 municipalities which need to merge together to save money and no need for all the over lapping service districts, however the city is one large entity. So , is this a problem in the county, are they trying to unite the entire stl city and county, or just the entire county merge in one conglomerate? When they say merge they dont want to annex the county and make it part of the city, correct?

    • Justin

      Craig,
      I believe better together’s primary goal is to merge the city and the county. Whether it is as one large city-county or just as St. Louis being another municipality.

    • stldoc

      From the Better Together website.
      Better Together is a grassroots project born in response to growing public interest in addressing the fragmented nature of local government throughout St. Louis City and County, which dates back to 1876, when St. Louis City broke away from St. Louis County.

      The resulting absence of a cohesive governmental structure left a void and many smaller governments formed to fill it. This is why the 1.3 million people who call St. Louis home are served by 115 local governments, which include St. Louis City and County, as well as 90 municipalities and 23 fire districts. The costs associated with funding all 115 governments (excluding airport and water service fees) has reached a staggering $2 billion per year. To-date, there has been no comprehensive single study that has looked across the City and County to determine whether the region could improve both service and cost by streamlining and eliminating redundancies and better serve the people of St. Louis.

      Better Together is neither putting forth nor advocating for a specific plan to such end, but rather seeks to act as a facilitator, a resource for information and tools, and a catalyst to spark discussion. Accordingly, we will drive an inclusive, transparent process of developing and assembling valuable information other organizations can use to craft their own plans for what the future of the region should look like, as well as judge plans put forth by others.

      • craigstl

        Inst it really the county which has a problem? They are fragmented, the city is not. Id rather keep them separate in terms of city limits and population.

        • stldoc

          I agree the county is severely more dysfunctional and redundant that the city, but savings would also be seen with the city re-entering the county as a municipality like it is in almost every other city in America. Plus re-entry would help the region look better on many of those image damaging Top 10 rankings by putting the region on same playing field as other regions (only with health stats as crime stats would require full merger).

          Fixing both makes sense and would send the important message that we are economic partners competing in the global economy rather than the fully separate entities competing against each other like we have for the last century. That said, it will come down to what ever is politically feasible and what the public would support with a public vote. But after numerous generations of wide scale dysfunctional regional governance and fragmentation without any success in improving it, any progress will be welcomed.

        • stldoc

          I agree the county is severely more dysfunctional and redundant that the city, but savings would also be seen with the city re-entering the county as a municipality like it is in almost every other city in America. Plus re-entry would help the region look better on many of those image damaging Top 10 rankings by putting the region on same playing field as other regions (only with health stats as crime stats would require full merger).

          Fixing both makes sense and would send the important message that we are economic partners competing in the global economy rather than the fully separate entities competing against each other like we have for the last century. That said, it will come down to what ever is politically feasible and what the public would support with a public vote. But after numerous generations of wide scale dysfunctional regional governance and fragmentation without any success in improving it, any progress will be welcomed.

        • matimal

          Yes, good point.

  • R

    “…the county’s 90 municipalities, despite being home to just 11%
    of Missouri’s population, took in 34% of all court fines and fees in
    the state in 2013.”

    This comparison is irrelevant. The number of people driving through any municipality has only a very loose relation to the number of people living in that municipality. What percent of total vehicle traffic passes through the 90 municipalities? I’ll bet that comparison doesn’t look so damning, and it would be much more accurate.

    • Alex Ihnen

      It would be great to have that number, but I don’t think it exists. Your point is a good one. I imagine that the disparity isn’t quite as great as 34/11, but these fines and fess aren’t simply from vehicles, and so the amount of traffic would only affect one portion of the equation. There are many ways to illustrate what is clearly a problem. When municipalities fund 20%+ of their budget with fines and fees, and that amount has increased dramatically because property and sales taxes have plummeted, it’s a huge problem. It’s not sustainable and it’s not moral. On a site like this, we use available data to try and illustrate a point. We work hard to never mislead with data or information, but recognize that complicated issues like this really deserve much more in depth analysis.

    • rgbose

      St. Louis City has a lot of visitors too, but its portion court fines and fees are pretty close to its population.

      • Alex Ihnen

        That’s the perfect point to make. St. Louis City most certainly has by far the highest influx of daily visitors, people driving through, and, of course, tourists.

  • RyleyinSTL

    “Or maybe, just maybe, some of these towns should merge or disincorporate.”

    Agree wholeheartedly. It seems madness to have 90 courts, 90 police services, 90 public works departments….. A family of 4 doesn’t run itself like 4 separate households, why do county municipalities insist on doing so?

  • kjohnson04

    There is a fairly simple, if not painful solution to the the problem. Reduction of local government units. At the state level. We’ve proven time and time again since 1876 that we can’t handle municipal affairs in the St. Louis region. As a consequence we have auto-dependent suburbs, decentralized development agencies, and borderline mass transit. We’ve created a mess that only drastic measures will be able to fix. We have ourselves to blame.

    That said, we know what the problems are, now what are the solutions? Incrementalism is too timid a a move here. What else?

  • matthew

    Why is data regarding change in population and resident wealth contextualized back to 1992, while data of property changes only to 2009? The ’90s concerned rather different financial environments, and the inclusion of that data has probably exaggerated the suggested correlation.

    • Alex Ihnen

      No reason other than that was the data available. It would be great to have data that aligns. That could occupy a Phd students for about 5yrs. Because the data is only a partial picture, we should always understand that exact conclusions can’t be reached.

      • matthew

        The general trend of population and wealth migration among the three locations tends to stabilize between 2008-2011, according to what I can understand at the source howmoneywalks.com (btw that site uses bar graphs to show cumulative quantity changes, how underhanded and misleading). I agree that the rise of fines and fees is bad practice, and denser development and fewer towns would probably lessen the need to resort to those measures, and also spur private investment, improve quality of life, etc., and perhaps a small up-tick is occurring in the last few years that sees that happening… but does population and wealth data from howmoneywalks.com, which is contextualized to support certain tax policies, support those points? St. Louis County nearly elected a Republican for County Executive – perhaps some of these moving parts are in sync. I would contend the same general points herein, but the graphics of wealth and population migration, using data from howmoneywalks, represent trends that, I think, are no longer current. Thank you both for the article.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Thanks for the comment, you make some very good points. I see some of the information presented howmoneywalks as problematic, but the gist of it is surely true: population migration takes an enormous amount of wealth with it. The issue isn’t often framed in this way, but it effectively highlights to municipal (and county) level economic crises caused by such (subsidized) migration.

    • rgbose

      Long term trends set the stage for what we’ve seen regarding muni courts and the rise of fines and fees since the recession. I contend if there were fewer towns they would have been in a better position to cope, both with the long-term forces at work and the acute challenges of the recession. Also I’m trying to tie in the role development patterns play in all this. If a greater portion of the metro were built in the traditional development pattern, we would have as many or more people in a smaller area. There would be less wealth tied up in infrastructure, the cost to serve the area would be lower, personal transportation costs would be lower, etc, but with much the same economic activity, so we’d be better able to ride through a recession.

  • CWE1959

    Interesting read. This quote (“Reliance on sales taxes has been a poor bet.”) I found to be of particular interest. This is true, but hasn’t America seemingly accepted the same philosophy? Consumption, consumption, and more consumption is the largest component of US GDP. Local governments are reliant upon the revenues generated from sales taxes and are thus at the mercy of corporate America. Whether it’s Walmart pitting Bridgeton against St. Ann or the Rams threatening to leave St. Louis for Los Angeles, corporations are doing what’s in their economic best interest. There are few political leaders willing to address and bring balance to this dysfunction.

    One issue not mentioned in this article is that of RACE. The population migration map and statistical realities of the disproportionate impact of foreclosures on North County are sadly rooted in the issue of RACE. When discussing the topics of foreclosures in North County, population migration, wealth migration, and local governments dysfunctionally oppressive response, it is hard to understand why one would not mention the role RACE plays regarding these dynamics. I appreciate the author’s desire to highlight an important topic, but it is difficult to imagine that comprehensive solutions can be devised without addressing the fact that those impacted are primarily BLACK.

    • Alex Ihnen

      You’re correct about the larger issue of consumption. We treat increasing casino revenues as an indicator of economic health – just for one more example. Regarding race, I won’t speak for the author, but I think the point is that this affects all of us, that there’s a high cost being paid for discrimination and wasteful policies. Perhaps people who don’t particularly care to understand or change issues regarding racial discrimination can be made to see that billions of dollars are being wasted. Sad, right? The fact that a lot of it is about race isn’t explicitly stated as often as it should be. Thanks for the comment.

    • rgbose

      Interestingly in states without sales taxes cities are also building in the hyper-horizontal development pattern that isn’t productive enough to pay for the infrastructure and services serving it. We’re not asking the right questions and during the right math. Here’s two videos that explain it really well: http://thenewlocalization.com/2014/11/08/statistics-for-financially-savvy-towns/?utm_content=bufferd5be4&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

      The authors of all the works I mentioned covered race way better and more comprehensively than I can.

  • Apologetic Troll

    This is really poorly written but the information is great.

  • LeaveSTL

    This is true but very sad. So shameful. Please spread this article around to people that you know to educate as many people as possible about this problem. Taxpayers need to be vigilant.

    • craigstl

      ^^Whats up with ur user id?