Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Quick Cash

Coburg, Oregon generated about 30% of its general fund budget from from traffic fines and bails in 2006-2007, down from nearly 50% previously. The town had become such a notorious speed trap that state legislation was enacted to deal with the issue. According to Coburg Police Chief John Bosley, the city has a legitimate safety interest in patrolling the freeway. And it's hard to argue that point.

On the other hand, state Senator Floyd Prozanski (D-Eugene) says it's poor policy to rely on tickets as a source of revenue because "the city's need to pay salaries," can become the driving factor in the decision to issue citations.

Senator Prozanski makes a good point. Ticketing is often at the discretion of the officer, and it would be preferable to have that call made in the interest of public safety, rather than revenue generation. And this touches on what for me is an important point. When a municipality comes to rely on fines and bails for a significant portion of their overall budget, in effect, they create for themselves an interest in lawbreaking. If everyone decided tomorrow to scrupulously observe the speed limit along Interstate 5, the town of Coburg would find itself in dire financial straits. And this then creates an incentive for the city to oppose measures that would lead to less speeding. (There was a similar case in Florida, some years ago. The highway department was painting lines across the expressway, spaced so that they created the illusion of acceleration. Drivers would then let off the gas, slowing down. Several municipalities sued the state to have the lines removed, as the initiative cut into their ticketing revenue. Similarly, several municipalities have made it illegal to feed other people's parking meters, as this also cuts into citations, and the revenue they generate.) The town's financial interest and its safety interest are at odds with each other. This is not to imply that Coburg is so corrupt or callous a place that they'd prefer carnage on the roadways to being broke - and since a world without speeding is a pipe dream, to some extent, this is a moot point. But in so many other areas, people are sensitive to even the appearance of a conflict of interest, and there certainly is an appearance here.

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