In recent months, Kansas City housing judge Todd Wilcher has dealt with an illegal West Bottoms junkyard, an illegal Clay County construction business operating from a home and a trashed-out vacant lot in the urban core.
But he fears his enforcement powers against those types of neighborhood nuisances, which number more than 100 a year, will be weakened by a bill awaiting Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon’s signature.
That legislation, Senate Bill 572, would lower potential fines and eliminate the possibility of jail time for nuisance and zoning code violations. While Wilcher and other Kansas City area officials warned lawmakers the bill could exacerbate neighborhood blight, it passed the Missouri General Assembly in the waning days of the session.
It’s all part of the aftermath from the riots, unrest and judicial investigations many will recall from Ferguson and other St. Louis area cities. Lawmakers recoiled at the news of small cities filling their coffers on the backs of poor people through excessive fines and burdensome jail sentences.
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In 2015, they passed Senate Bill 5, which lowered fines and eliminated jail time for what were described as “minor traffic offenses.” This year, Senate Bill 572 expanded that relief by reducing fines and eliminating jail time for non-moving violations such as the nuisance and zoning code violations that Wilcher handles.
But what many people see as progressive municipal court reform, Kansas City officials view as actually making things worse for public safety and neighborhood livability.
“People are motivated in residential properties to accumulate numerous washing machines and televisions and refrigerators and scrap them,” Wilcher said, describing the chronic illegal landfills and junkyard cases he sees.
In more than four years on the bench, he said, he has sentenced fewer than a dozen people to a few days in jail. But that potential for up to 10 days in jail, he said, was necessary to get their attention because paying fines was just part of doing business.
“It’s those exceptional cases, but the exceptional cases have the most dramatic impact on real estate values and are of the greatest concern,” he said.
David Slater, mayor of Pleasant Valley and chair of the Kansas City Metro Mayors Caucus, is equally upset about the bill and is urging everyone he knows to tell Nixon to veto the bill.
“Lax codes bring blight, bring crime,” Slater said.
Slater and others believe it will have serious unintended consequences on this side of the state.
The bill’s sponsor doesn’t buy that argument.
Sen. Eric Schmitt, a St. Louis County Republican and candidate for Missouri treasurer, said it is bipartisan reform designed to prevent cities from trapping low-income people with exorbitant fines and a debtors prison.
“A city budget shouldn’t be funded on the backs of poor folks for minor municipal infractions,” Schmitt said. “Nor do I think someone should go to jail for having a taillight out or having tall grass.”
If the governor signs it, as most people expect, Senate Bill 572 will take effect Aug. 28.
Schmitt cites stories out of places like Pagedale, in St. Louis County, where people were ticketed for having mismatched drapes or sagging gutters and could be fined for having a barbecue grill in the front yard. The town issued almost twice as many tickets in 2014 as there were households, and some people were jailed for not having enough money to pay their fines. It was dubbed “taxation by citation.”
While most abuses occurred in the St. Louis area, Schmitt pointed out Kansas City is being sued over a $10 or $25 warrant cancellation fee that was imposed for years on municipal court defendants who had warrants and were later found guilty.
But Kansas City officials say the warrant fee is no longer charged. A similar lawsuit against 13 Jackson County municipalities was dismissed at the trial court level, although it remains on appeal.
While Kansas City leaders acknowledge some egregious abuses in the St. Louis area, they contend it had no relevance to this side of the state, where people are not paying outrageous fines or going to jail for ludicrous reasons.
“There’s an overreaction. If you want to do something with Ferguson, do something with Ferguson,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James. “We don’t have that issue here. And what they’ve done is they’ve created problems for us where none existed.”
Before the bill passed, Presiding Kansas City Municipal Judge Anne LaBella wrote a newspaper op-ed piece that ran in several Missouri cities, arguing: “Instead of making bad courts good, Senate Bill 572 makes good courts ineffective.”
One recent case illustrates how Jackson County residents view neighborhood blight. A Kansas City man was cited for having a trashy lot, full of brush and yard waste, construction debris, beer cans, plastic cups and other junk at 30th Street and Holmes Road.
Wilcher fined the man $500, but he appealed to Jackson County Circuit Court. There a jury found him guilty and recommended a fine of $1,000. Sentencing is scheduled for later this month.
Housing prosecutor Victor Peters, who tried the case before the jury, noted that such a high fine would no longer be possible if Senate Bill 572 became law. Instead of the maximum penalty of $1,000 or 10 days in jail, the initial fine would be capped at $200, escalating to a maximum of $450 after four or more violations in a year, with no jail time as an option anymore.
Kansas City housing officials aren’t alone in their concerns. Zach Walker, assistant city manager for Independence, said his city isn’t like the small eastern Missouri towns where code officers were peeking in people’s windows.
“We have six officers to cover 78 square miles,” he said. “We don’t have time to peek in windows.”
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.
However, the Missouri Association of Realtors backed the bill. Association lobbyist Sam Licklider said there had been instances, again in the St. Louis area, where property owners were unfairly arrested for missing court dates when they had never received notices of violations created by their tenants.
He said the bill on balance is good and provides needed protections for property owners.
Nevertheless, Licklider acknowledged that Kansas City courts have not been a problem and “have a pretty good record among a lot of the folks I deal with.”
Kansas City officials are also frustrated that Senate Bill 572 did not remedy what they saw as flaws in last year’s Senate Bill 5, which capped fines and court costs at $225 for “minor traffic offenses.”
Those minor offenses can include failure to have a driver’s license, failure to have car insurance and failure to have proper car tags. It will let bad drivers stay behind the wheel, critics warn.
“You can speed 44 mph in a residential zone, you can run red lights and stop signs all day,” said Kansas City municipal prosecutor Lowell Gard. “And you can do it as many times as you want. And the maximum fine is $225.”
Gard said Senate Bill 5 also took away the ability to suspend a driver’s license for failure to show up in court, removing one motivator for people to pay their fines. Indeed, Kansas City municipal court data show that’s already happening.
Since Senate Bill 5 passed in 2015, Kansas City’s traffic warrants for failure to pay have increased from 77,000 to 108,000 — 40 percent.
Walker said the same is happening in Independence, where compliance in paying traffic tickets has plummeted.
“There’s no way to compel someone who isn’t a good moral citizen,” he said. “If they don’t come into court, there’s no way to get them in here. If you or I don’t pay the phone bill, it gets turned off. That should also apply to a driver’s license.”
Schmitt said people can still be ticketed and fined. The only people complaining, he said, are municipal court bureaucrats.
“People across the state, including the Kansas City delegation and rural representatives, recognized that some of these tactics employed by some of these cities have broken down trust between the people and their government. We take that seriously,” Schmitt said.
Jason Holsman, a Senate Democrat who represents south Kansas City and Grandview, said he knew his district was not the problem area. But he said it was clearly a problem elsewhere in Missouri, and he could support trying to help poor people who are being unfairly treated by their municipalities.
If the serious blight and public safety problems that Kansas City foresees come to pass, Holsman said, there’s a solution.
“I’m aware that we have the ability to monitior and review the impacts of the legislation on the courts over the next year,” he said. “If something needs to be adjusted, we’ll come back and discuss it.”