Municipal court judges and Missouri state officials and politicians find themselves in a nasty dispute — over a $3 fee, or possibly more. A lot more.
By DAVE HELLING
The Kansas City Star
In early July, the state told judges in more than 575 Missouri municipal courts to start collecting a $3 surcharge from every violator they see. Every person convicted in a city court for speeding, a housing code problem, a noise offense, or other ordinance violation should pay the surcharge, administrators said.
The $3 fee is expected to raise at least $1.5 million a year and could be tacked on to your speeding ticket by summer’s end.
That money will help replenish the pension fund of roughly 150 retired Missouri sheriffs and their spouses.
The fee collection has outraged several municipal judges across the state. Requiring their defendants to cough up an additional $3 to protect several dozen retired sheriffs, they say, is unfair. In addition to fearing it might violate the state constitution, they worry it will be just the first of many fees piled on violators.
“It’s really ugly,” said Frank Vatterott, a lawyer and part-time municipal judge in Overland, Mo. “We have poor people in our courts.”
Vatterott is preparing a legal challenge to the surcharge.
Other municipal judges say the issue transcends the sheriffs retirement fund. Attaching a surcharge to city court cases, they say, could establish a precedent for adding dozens of other fees and costs onto city violations, bumping $50 traffic tickets to $150 or more.
“Where does it stop?” asked Garry Helm, a lawyer and a part-time municipal court judge in several eastern Jackson County communities.
State officials insist they’re following the law.
Circuit courts have collected the $3 fee for years. It was reauthorized in 1996.
But municipal courts, which are considered a subdivision of circuit courts, have long believed the law didn’t apply to them.
At least twice, Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has said they’re wrong. All “the courts of this state,” including municipal courts, need to collect the surcharge, he said in an opinion last April.
In early July, the Missouri Office of the State Court Administrator, known as OSCA, began notifying municipal court clerks of Koster’s view. The clerks were issued “guidance” to begin collecting the additional $3 by Aug. 28.
The letter marked a surprising turnaround for OSCA, which supervises state courts under the umbrella of the Missouri Supreme Court.
Just two years ago, OSCA rejected Koster’s view. The fee was “contrary to how the courts have interpreted that statute,” it said, pointing out that Koster’s opinions are nonbinding.
But Greg Linhares, the statewide court administrator, said in an email that Koster’s most recent opinion “clarifies” the fee, leading to the change of opinion.
The state legislature considered settling the issue this spring by explicitly requiring municipal courts to collect the fee. A measure sponsored by state Rep. Caleb Jones, Republican from California, would have levied the surcharge in all courts and lowered it from $3 to $2.
Jones’ father, Kenny, is a retired sheriff from Moniteau County and a former member of the state legislature. He has served on the board of directors of the Sheriffs’ Retirement System.
And that system may need help. Like many public pension funds, it was damaged in 2008 when investment income dried up.
State law prohibits funding the retirement plan from general state revenues, or by counties. Its money must come from the surcharge. If the fund runs short, the law says, benefits must be cut.
C.F. Barnes, executive director of retirement system, said the pension fund, which covers sheriffs but not their deputies, is “90 percent” funded.
An outside review last year said the fund needs roughly $3 million each year to pay all of its promised benefits. The fund currently takes in about $1.5 million annually.
Collecting the surcharge from municipal courts, even at the $2 level, would erase that shortfall, state figures show, eliminating the threat to benefits promised retired sheriffs.
Barnes admitted the municipal court surcharge would help it recover.
“We just want to fund it,” Barnes said. “We want it to be financially sound.”
Caleb Jones’ legislation to authorize the $2 fee was withdrawn this spring. Instead, in April, a Republican senator asked for Koster’s opinion.
Two days later, Koster said the local courts needed to collect the $3 surcharge. In July, OSCA told courts to start paying up.
Koster spokesman Eric Slusher said the attorney general wouldn’t comment on the most recent opinion, or its timing.
“The AG was asked to provide a legal opinion about the statute and did so,” he said in an email. “That was the extent of it.”
In an interview, Caleb Jones said there was no connection between his efforts, Koster’s opinion and his father’s status as a retired sheriff.
“Absolutely not,” he said. Kenny Jones was unavailable for comment.
Caleb Jones said he expects the state legislature to take up the matter again next year. Jones already has announced a campaign to become speaker of the House of Representatives, a job now held by his cousin, Rep. Tim Jones, a Republican from Eureka.
Vatterott and other judges say it shouldn’t be their job — or the job of local violators — to come up with an additional $1.5 million just to shore up the sheriffs fund.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said, “for … retired sheriffs, who have nothing to do with our court.”
While opponents of the surcharge prepare to challenge it in court, municipal court clerks are preparing to add the $3 to speeding tickets by the end of August.
Adding court costs to municipal fines could eventually become expensive for violators, said Kelly Elliott of the Lee’s Summit municipal court.
“There are a significant amount of court costs that are charged in the state courts that do not come over and fall in municipal courts,” she said.