After the events of Ferguson, when it was discovered that the city had been using fines and court fees to fund much of city government, legislators acted to restrict the practice. According to a February story in The Kansas City Star,
Sen. Eric Schmitt, a St. Louis County Republican, is sponsoring the legislation capping municipal court fines.
“We’re trying to prevent cities from using this as a revenue-generating opportunity and we’re trying to protect individuals who are primarily poor,” Schmitt told The Star. “People ought to obey the law, but we shouldn’t treat our citizens like ATMs.”
In a more recent story, the Star features various Jackson County and Kansas City leaders bristling at the idea of having court fines and fees reduced. Specifically they point to the impact this might have on addressing blight:
Deb Hermann, chief executive officer of Northland Neighborhoods Inc., said Kansas City is already planning to spend $10 million to tear down 800 dangerous buildings over the next two years, illustrating the level of blight in the city.
She said that for too many irresponsible property owners, $450 is just the cost of doing business.
“The city does not need to lose any tools it has to encourage people to take care of their properties,” she said.
Here is the problem: the City of Kansas City is the largest owner of blighted properties in the city. About 200 of the 800 dangerous vacant buildings that Kansas City is finally tearing down are its own. As several residents pointed out in the KCPT documentary, “Our Divided City,” the City can be quick to levy fines on private owners while letting their own properties languish.
This all reminds me of my father’s favorite example of chutzpah: a defendant convicted of killing his parents asking the court for leniency because he is an orphan.
No one should be surprised that local governments do not want the legislature restricting their ability to levy fines and fees. Claiming that they are motivated by addressing blight is just not supported by the facts.