Worried speed traps would hurt tourism Louisiana legislators and officials over the past dozen years have tried new laws, investigated police officers, even attempted shaming towns with flashing warning signs, all in hopes of tamping down the number of tickets written by small-town police officers.

None of it works.

The number of Louisiana towns, villages and small cities in which fines make up at least half their revenues has risen from 15 in 2007 to more than 25 in 2018, according to a review by The Advocate of annual state audits of local finances.

For 60 other municipalities, fines and forfeitures account for more than 30 percent of government revenues. That’s up from 28 in 2007.

And 194 of the state’s 304 incorporated cities, towns and villages raise more in fines and forfeitures than they do in property taxes, according to latest financial audits.

The reason is less Barney Fife passionately holding scofflaws to account for minor infractions and more small-town officers strictly enforcing traffic laws — issuing tickets costing $80 to $200 or more — that has the added benefit of bringing more money to municipalities with few other revenue-raising options.

“That’s the symbol of a broken system when you have to depend on preying on people to pay your bills,” said Robert Scott, head of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. PAR is a nonprofit Baton Rouge-based government policy analyst. “If you’re protecting people, that’s OK, but if you’re protecting services, you need to re-examine.”

Safety is the reason some mayors of the small municipalities say their officers strictly enforce traffic laws. That the effort also raises significant revenues is lagniappe.

Port Vincent Mayor Johnny Page said traffic fines is one of the few revenue sources available to his village of 749 residents. His municipality gets some rent from a cell tower, part of the parish beer tax, $50,453 in utility fees and a few other sources. But he is thankful for the additional $394,818 from traffic fines, which accounted for a little more than half the town’s revenues for the fiscal year ending June 30.

But the police chief and two full-time officers would continue to write tickets should the system miraculously change and the village become flush with money from other sources, Page said. Thousands of vehicles per day pass down the main street to the bridge over the Amite River that takes Livingston Parish residents to the big plants in Ascension Parish.

Similarly, Sherbin Collette, mayor of Henderson, for years has passionately challenged his town’s presence on national websites as one of the region’s top speed traps. Henderson’s police chief recently was investigated by the state inspector general for the town’s ticket-writing practices.

The town’s limits include a strip of Interstate 10 from the Atchafalaya Basin Bridge to the Exit 115, the Henderson exit, and is the scene of hundreds of serious, often fatal, wrecks. His officers sit among billboards of lawyers soliciting accident victims as about 80,000 vehicles a day pass. They pull over motorists driving more than 10 mph over the posted speed limit.

“I am sure that we save lives every day, every hour,” Collette said. But he acknowledges that the $1.1 million in fines — 85 percent of the town’s revenues in 2018 — is important to the town of 1,771 residents. Henderson reported raising $8,433 in property taxes and $190,386 in sales taxes for the fiscal year ending June 30, according to the annual audit of the town’s finances.

“We don’t have many resources,” Collette said. With only a restaurant and a pharmacy, “sales taxes in Henderson are virtually nil.”

Collette recently succeeded in extending the town’s limits to include the gas stations and restaurants at Exit 115, which will add to the town’s sales tax collections and should lower the ratio of fines to other revenues in the future. But, for what he calls safety reasons, Collette said Henderson will not let up on strictly enforcing traffic laws.

“For some of these towns, tickets have been a major revenue producer that has been the difference between providing services and not providing services,” said state Sen. Gerald Long, R-Natchitoches, whose district includes many of the towns relying on traffic fines for at least half of their revenues. But the state doesn’t send much help in the way of economic development or structural changes that would address the revenue-raising problem.

“We have so many small communities struggling as people move, business and industry pull out, and there’s no new growth. I’m sympathetic but I also get the phone calls from those getting the tickets,” Long said.

Louisiana is facing a crisis as the population continues to shift from small rural towns to big cities, mostly south of Interstate 10, leaving behind an older and less affluent population. The Louisiana Fiscal Review Committee, which decides when to ask the courts to install a state fiscal administrator to run a financially troubled town, have taken over more municipalities in the past few months than during its entire history combined.

One of those towns recently tapped to receive a fiscal administrator is Clarence. The Natchitoches Parish village has 499 people, 49 percent of whom live below the federal poverty level. Although Board of Aldermen members place most of the blame on the old mayor’s policies, the town’s problems began when police cars lost their insurance and had to park. Village revenues, which in 2011 had augmented its $239,145 budget with $100,056 in fines, plummeted.

In considering whether the Louisiana Travel Promotion Association should include speed traps in tourist guides, lawmakers asked the Legislative Auditor's Office to determine "the extent to which speed limits and their enforcement in municipalities are based more on revenue generation rather than public safety."

The resulting 2007 “Excessive Fines Enforcement” report listed 15 municipalities with more than half their revenues coming from fines and forfeitures. (The Advocate reviewed the latest available audits of each town’s annual financial statements and found 25 such municipalities now.)

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Since the 2007 report, Louisiana ranked 13th on the National Motorists Association list of the worst speed traps in the nation. The Thrillist website put the state at seventh.

Texas resident Joey Hopewell in 2016 paid for billboards that read “Warning: Speed Zones Ahead” outside several towns along U.S. Hwy. 165 through central Louisiana, according to KPRC-TV in Houston.

The Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for government transparency, noted that nationally 2 cents of every $1 in fines went to fund local government. In Louisiana, the 2013 ratio of fines and forfeitures to government revenues was 19 cents for every dollar. Arkansas has the second-highest figure at 10 cents.

But Arkansas also investigates police departments when half the tickets their officers write are for driving less than 10 mph over the speed limit. Texas and Missouri restrict the percentage of revenues coming from tickets in small towns.

Louisiana forbids officers from having a ticket-writing quota. And in 2008, legislators tried, but failed, to cap at 20 percent the ratio of fines to overall revenues for towns of 1,000 to 3,000 residents.

In 2009, the Legislature passed a law that directs into state coffers any fines local officers impose on drivers traveling at 10 mph or less than the posted speed limit on interstate highways.

Winnsboro Republican Rep. Steve Pylant went a different direction in 2014, pushing legislation that would require municipalities receiving more than half their income from tickets to erect flashing signs that warn motorists they’re entering a speed trap.

Pylant’s measure cleared committee, but he knew it was in trouble as he walked into the House chamber past dozens of small-town mayors he recognized from his days as a Franklin Parish sheriff.

“I saw what I was up against. People agreed with me, but they have small towns in their districts and they’d being going against their constituents,” Pylant said in an interview last week. “Everybody would tell me they thought something needed to be done. They just didn’t want their name associated with it.”

The House rejected the bill on a 52-47 vote.

Pylant, who is entering his last session as a state representative in April, said he won’t be renewing the fight.

“Fines are now a way to run a government. It speaks to the need for a more diversified and stable tax base,” said Jan Moller, executive director of the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Budget Project, which advocates on behalf of low- and moderate-income people.

Towns in most states rely on property taxes, which tend to be stable during recessions and economic downturns. Louisiana and other states in the Deep South rely more on sales taxes, which rise and fall based on consumer purchases.

But increasing property taxes, or sales taxes for that matter, requires the approval of local voters, which doesn’t happen often. About the only other options available to town officials are the sale of drinking water, sometimes natural gas, fees for sewerage and trash collection, and aggressive law enforcement, said John Gallagher, head of the Louisiana Municipal Association.

“We don’t like to see folks running their town on traffic tickets that’s not a real good thing to do,” Gallagher said. “But if people are breaking the law, then it’s another way the law allows, I guess, to generate revenues.”

        Locale          Percentage of town revenues made up by fines

  1. Fenton           94.9 percent
  2. Georgetown    92.2 percent
  3. Baskin           89.3 percent
  4. Henderson     84.6 percent
  5. Robeline        84.4 percent
  6. Reeves          84.4 percent
  7. Pioneer         84.4 percent
  8. Tullos           80.3 percent
  9. Forest Hill     75.5 percent
  10. Creola          72.4 percent
  11. McNary        71.1 percent
  12. Clayton        69.5 percent
  13. Pollock         67.49 percent
  14. Merryville     67.47 percent
  15. Gilbert         65.4 percent
  16. Port Vincent 65.0 percent
  17. Mangham    63.27 percent
  18. Fisher         62.23 percent
  19. Dodson       62.1 percent
  20. Bonita         59.3 percent
  21. Pine Prairie  56.1 percent
  22. Tickfaw       52.4 percent
  23. Woodworth  51.5 percent
  24. Pearl River   50.6 percent
  25. Florien         49.7 percent

Source: Annual audits of town finances by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.