Government & Politics

KC worries that state legislation restricting municipal courts would prolong blight

“We’ve got nine dedicated judges in Kansas City municipal court. Not one of us gives a whit about raising revenue for the city,” said Judge Todd Wilcher of the housing court, who oversees the type of zoning code violations that would be affected by the bill. “What we do care about is compliance, deterrence and rehabilitation.”
“We’ve got nine dedicated judges in Kansas City municipal court. Not one of us gives a whit about raising revenue for the city,” said Judge Todd Wilcher of the housing court, who oversees the type of zoning code violations that would be affected by the bill. “What we do care about is compliance, deterrence and rehabilitation.” jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

Missouri residents would probably eagerly embrace a bill eliminating jail time for a host of traffic and municipal offenses and capping fines and court costs at $200.

On a “minor traffic offense,” violators could save $100 or more. But for property code problems, the savings for violators could be thousands of dollars.

That’s why local officials are saying not so fast. They contend that the bill — awaiting action in the Missouri House after clearing the Senate — might be taking away a tool that helps fight creeping blight.

Kansas City’s struggles with blight are nothing new. Abandoned homes and nuisance properties are a major concern for city leaders and residents as they work to battle crime and revitalize neighborhoods.

The bill is not aimed at making life easier for scofflaws. It has a much more serious purpose: preventing Missouri cities from using court fines as a major revenue generator and in the process trapping low-income citizens in a cycle of debt.

Its supporters see it as a continuation of a bill that passed last year in the aftermath of the unrest in Ferguson that attempts to rein in the use of traffic tickets to fund local coffers.

While the bill might hit its main target, consider that in recent months Kansas City municipal court prosecutors have taken action against an illegal tow truck business near Worlds of Fun, an illegal salvage yard in the West Bottoms and a man running a construction business out of his Clay County home.

All were big neighborhood nuisances, prosecutors say, and the threat of large fines or jail time helped persuade violators to clean up their acts.

Then there are abandoned or dilapidated residential properties, many of which are owned by out-of-state banks and corporations with little interest in cleaning them up.

“Some of the properties are atrocious, and they’ve been foreclosed on, and the banks that own them will not fix them,” said Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat.

Sen. Eric Schmitt, a St. Louis County Republican, is sponsoring the legislation capping municipal court fines.

“We’re trying to prevent cities from using this as a revenue-generating opportunity and we’re trying to protect individuals who are primarily poor,” Schmitt told The Star. “People ought to obey the law, but we shouldn’t treat our citizens like ATMs.”

Schmitt pointed to the town of Pagedale in St. Louis County, home to 3,304 residents. According to analysis by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the town issued 2,255 citations in 2014 — almost two per household — for offenses ranging from tall grass to peeling paint to barbecue grills in the front yard.

“What we were finding is people start with a small ticket and then get hit with another and then get fined for failure to appear in court, and eventually that $100 fine becomes an $800 fine,” Schmitt said. “And it disproportionately affects the poor and perpetuates a cycle of poverty.”

But Kansas City municipal court officials say they don’t commit those abuses and as the largest municipal court in the state, they should be exempted from the legislation.

“We’ve got nine dedicated judges in Kansas City municipal court. Not one of us gives a whit about raising revenue for the city,” said Judge Todd Wilcher of the housing court, who oversees the type of zoning code violations that would be affected by the bill. “What we do care about is compliance, deterrence and rehabilitation.”

Wilcher said he handles about 200 cases a year involving things like salvage and wrecking yards, demolition debris landfills and other illegal businesses in neighborhoods. They are a big problem, and one tool he has to correct the violations is fines of up to $1,000 and up to 10 days in jail.

“The fact of the matter is people are unmoved by $200 fines in a lot of cases, whereas they are moved by $1,000 fines,” Wilcher said. “I utilize sentencing incentives for people to get off the dime, get those problems taken care of. … When they come back for sentencing, if I’m left with a $200 fine, they probably will come back having not done any work.”

Wilcher said a $200 fine will fail to motivate compliance in a substantial number of cases. It could just be considered the cost of doing business.

City prosecutor Lowell Gard said the same applies for how the legislation handles “minor traffic offenses.”

Maximum fines for each violation would drop from $300 to $200. The penalty of jail time was eliminated under Schmitt’s legislation last year.

Under the proposed legislation, driving without a license is characterized as a minor violation, as are certain other traffic offenses. So a person without a driver’s license, without insurance and driving 19 mph over the speed limit would be presumed to have committed minor violations.

“The kicker,” Gard said, “is there is no possibility of a jail sentence.”

Jailing people for traffic violations and imposing stiff fines is rare, he said. But without that potential penalty, Gard and others worry that some people won’t pay their fines. He estimates there are several hundred chronic traffic offenders who could take advantage of this more lenient treatment.

Most people quickly pay speeding tickets, so that means the chronic offenders might end up getting off easier than law-abiding citizens.

It would cost us the ability to control the worst offenders, Gard said.

While some small municipalities use fines and court costs to bolster their revenues, municipal court administrators say that’s not the case in Kansas City.

When the city adds up the fines and court fees — not counting specific parking fees and domestic violence fees that go into special funds — it adds up to $17.7 million.

That’s 3.5 percent of the total $505 million general fund.

Kansas City officials aren’t the only ones with concerns. Mayor Eileen Weir of Independence says she has no problem with the intent of the legislation. But she believes that by including large cities, the bill hampers the ability to rein in bad actors.

“Commercial developers who let buildings sit abandoned and blight a neighborhood — well, a $200 fine doesn’t mean anything to them,” she said. “They’ll write that check all day long and go on about their way.”

She hopes lawmakers will exempt cities with populations larger than 100,000 from the bill, which she said is a “reasonable request.”

Rep. Robert Cornejo, a St. Charles County Republican sponsoring the bill in the House, said that idea is likely a nonstarter.

“I don’t think there’s any way we’ll start carving out cities,” he said.

The legislation quickly made its way out of the Senate last month, with only six votes against. But Cornejo said it will be several weeks before the House moves the bill forward.

“I really want to take our time and comb over this and digest everything,” he said, adding that he is open to finding a way to alleviate Kansas City’s concerns about repeat offenders who ignore fines.

Schmitt agreed that he is open to discuss any possible improvements to the bill.

“Look, I certainly don’t empathize with a slumlord who refuses to take care of their property,” he said. “But we have to put an end to cities using code enforcement officers as a way to generate revenue. We’re trying to say you can’t be thrown in jail because you’re too poor to pay a fine for peeling paint, that we’re not creating debtor prisons. Those are fundamental issues of justice.”

Lynn Horsley: 816-226-2058, @LynnHorsley

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock

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