Guest Editorial: A town where all is fine(d)
Having your house sporting mismatched curtains, wearing your pants below your waist or having weeds in your yard higher than seven inches might be neighborhood faux pas, but in Pagedale, Mo., they can land you with serious citations and fines — which is what the city is counting on.
The problems started about five years ago, after a 2009 Missouri law prevented municipalities from raising more than 30 percent of general fund revenue from traffic tickets. Other municipal tickets are not subject to the limit, however.
So, desperate to raise revenue, the 1.2-square-mile town of about 3,300 residents in St. Louis County embarked on a ticketing crusade. Since 2010, the number of nontraffic-related tickets levied against residents has increased nearly 500 percent. In 2014, the city issued 2,255 nontraffic tickets — roughly two citations for every household. Altogether, fines and fees now make up almost 20 percent of the city’s budget.
The list of ludicrous infractions includes having holes in window screens, putting a basketball hoop or a wading pool in front of one’s house, having a barbeque in front of a house and walking on the left-hand side of a crosswalk. Basically, the entire city is like a homeowners’ association from hell — with the power to put you in jail or condemn your home if you don’t cough up the dough for its ridiculous citations.
“The town has even ticketed residents for things that aren’t even illegal, like having a small crack in a front walk, chipping paint on a building foundation or an unpainted wood fence,” notes the Institute for Justice, which has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of residents contending that the city’s nitpicking code enforcement and budgetary practices are not only maddening, but that they amount to a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
“This case demonstrates that property rights are fundamentally civil rights,” IJ Senior Attorney Willam Maurer said in a statement. “Pagedale treats its residents like walking, talking ATMs, making withdrawals by issuing tickets for ridiculous things that no city has a right to dictate.”
This town should prompt us to re-examine code enforcement and government micromanagement in our own towns. Laws should be narrowly tailored to protect people and property, and fines should be reasonable, not an excuse to line government coffers.