Cities, state wrangle over low-level speeding finesby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Cities across Minnesota are hoping this is the year the Legislature clarifies whether they can issue fines for minor traffic stops.
Several cities have decided that the practice helps deter speeding in neighborhoods. But critics say it robs the state of much-needed revenue.
The city of White Bear Lake was the first to issue fines for minor traffic violations about 10 years ago. City Manager Mark Sather said issuing warnings to motorists wasn't working, and police officers were reluctant to give speeding tickets that cost as much as $130 for low-level violations.
"We came up with the idea of a warning with a sting," he said.
Sather said the city decided to implement an administrative fine of $40 for minor traffic violations like driving 10 mph over the speed limit.
Between 2005 and 2007, the city issued 11,000 fines, which earned White Bear Lake roughly $450,000. He said most of the citations were given to local residents.
"A $40 ticket to a mom or a father dropping off a child at an elementary school seems a lot better than the heavy-handed $140 ticket," he said.
Even though Sather said White Bear Lake didn't come up with the practice to make money, he thinks other cities adopted it as a way to raise revenue.
That concerns one state lawmaker who says cities aren't following state law when it comes to speeders.
"They ignored the law and put forth a system that essentially gave them the money," said Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids.
Foley wants to ban cities from issuing administrative fines for traffic violations. He said when cities use local fines instead of regular speeding tickets, it puts a hole in Minnesota's budget.
Since 2003, the surcharge the state puts on speeding tickets has increased to $75. That's on top of half of the revenue from every ticket, which also goes to the state. Foley said big bucks are involved.
"Instead of going to the state, where the law is required, they keep all of that money for the cities," he said.
Foley said he also believes the law is on his side. The Minnesota Attorney General and the State Auditor have both said they don't believe cities have the authority to issue the fines. But the law doesn't explicitly say that.
Some cities, like New Brighton, dropped the practice as a result of those opinions. New Brighton public safety director Bob Jacobson said he'd like to reinstate the fines.
"We believe that this is a good program and option for our officers, but we also think it's an issue our legislators need to resolve," he said. "And we're not going to be comfortable using this until we get some clear guidance from the Legislature."
Some state lawmakers think the fines are a good way for cities to raise money and make their streets safer.
Rep. Larry Hosch, DFL-St. Joseph, proposed legislation that would allow cities to issue uniform fines for low level traffic violations. It would be $60, with $40 going to the cities and $20 to the state.
"I think we need to look for concensus to work on what's already been successful for many of our local municipalities instead of possibly banning a practice that could impact possibly hundreds of our cities," he said.
Hosch said law enforcement, the League of Minnesota Cities and other groups have agreed to his compromise. The only problem is that a fiscal analysis shows the Hosch bill will cost the state as much as $3 million a year -- a difficult thing to swallow in a tough budget year.
The study found police would be more likely to issue a fine than a ticket to low-level speeders.
Anne Finn, with the League of Minnesota Cities, disagrees with that analysis. She argued that it could be a net increase in funding for the state, since police will issue fines instead of warnings. She also said drivers are less likely to go to court to challenge a fine than a higher priced ticket.
"They're more willing to challenge it," she said. "It's more expensive for the locals and the property tax payers in that jurisdiction. And if we can keep those violations out of the courts, it will amount to a net savings for both the courts and local units of government."
Finn said she's hopeful that a public safety conference committee will agree to include the language in the final budget bill. She said city officials want this issue resolved so they don't have to debate legislation that either allows or prohibits the fines.
- Morning Edition, 05/04/2009, 7:25 a.m.