Addicted to Fines

Source: Mike Maciag, Governing, September 2019

Small towns in much of the country are dangerously dependent on punitive fines and fees.

….Throughout the country, smaller cities and towns generate major dollars from different types of fines, sometimes accounting for more than half of their revenues. Some places are known for being speed traps. Others prop up their budgets using traffic cameras, parking citations or code enforcement violations.

To get a picture of just how much cities, towns and counties rely on fines and fees, Governing conducted the largest national analysis to date of fine revenues and the extent to which they fund budgets, compiling data from thousands of annual financial audits and reports filed to state agencies.

What we found is that in hundreds of jurisdictions throughout the country, fines are used to fund a significant portion of the budget. They account for more than 10 percent of general fund revenues in nearly 600 U.S. jurisdictions. In at least 284 of those governments, it’s more than 20 percent. Some other governments allocate the revenues outside the general fund. When fine and forfeiture revenues in all funds are considered, more than 720 localities reported annual revenues exceeding $100 for every adult resident. And those numbers would be even higher if they included communities reporting less than $100,000 in fines; those jurisdictions were excluded from our analysis. In some places, traffic fine revenue actually exceeds limits outlined in state laws…..

….The fact is that fines and fees are a volatile revenue source, and the towns that rely the most on them face an increasingly uncertain fiscal future…..