A coalition of Missouri judges, lawyers and city officials went to court Tuesday to halt statewide collection of a $3 surcharge for municipal violations such as speeding and parking tickets.
The lawsuit — filed in Cole County Circuit Court — says the $3 fee violates the Missouri Constitution because the money raised will go to retired county sheriffs, who are not connected with city courts.
Despite that legal challenge, hundreds of municipal courts, including Kansas City’s, will start collecting the additional $3 Wednesday. The surcharge will be added to all city convictions, from housing and noise violations to parking offenses.
The fee has been controversial for months.
Several judges are upset the surcharge is designed to raise more than $1.5 million for the sheriffs’ retirement fund.
“It cannot be seriously argued that the duties of the 114 sheriffs of this state include services to the municipal courts,” wrote Municipal Judge John Boeh of St. Joseph, ordering his staff not to collect it. “Such a surcharge is unconstitutional.”
Kansas City’s judges, though, have decided to impose the fee. They are worried they could face a monumental back payment bill if they don’t collect the money now and are later ordered to by a higher court.
Starting Wednesday, city violators will face total fees of $34.50 for moving and general ordinance violations and $16.50 for parking tickets. The fees will be added to the actual fines for breaking an ordinance.
The $3 surcharge is expected to raise $250,000 a year in Kansas City alone.
Because the lawsuit challenging the surcharge won’t be heard until later this week, the cities collecting the fee are expected to do so for at least several days.
The lawsuit seeks a temporary halt to the fee and a declaration that it is illegal in city courts.
Recent studies have suggested the sheriffs’ retirement fund needs an additional $1.5 million each year to pay all promised benefits. State law requires the fund to raise revenue from court fees, not from county budgets or general state taxes.
If the fund falls short, benefits must be cut.
State lawmakers tried to quiet the controversy last spring by discussing a bill explicitly imposing the fee in municipal courts.
One measure was offered by Rep. Caleb Jones, a Republican from California, Mo. Jones’ father, Kenny, is a retired sheriff and a former member of the state legislature. He has served on the board of directors of the Sheriffs’ Retirement System.
Jones said his proposal was not related to his father’s pension. Ultimately, it failed.
But in July, the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator, relying on an opinion from Attorney General Chris Koster, began notifying municipal court clerks around the state that the fee should be collected.
A statement from Kansas City’s municipal court said the $3 fee will apply to all violations, even for tickets issued before Wednesday but not yet paid or heard by a judge.
Anyone found not guilty will avoid court costs. And in some cases, court costs can be waived.