Speed trap tripped: Shamrock's green fades
By RHETT MORGAN World Staff Writer
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The town lost the majority of its operating budget when the attorney general put a moratorium on traffic ticketing.
SHAMROCK -- Known primarily for a St. Patrick's Day celebration, this Irish-tinged town has been watching its luck run out.
Along with its money.
For nearly the past five months, a "speed trap" designation by the state attorney general has kept local police from writing tickets on the town's main drag, resulting in a significant drop in municipal revenue.
"It wasn't too bad until we lost the highway," Volunteer Fire Chief David Long said. "We've had a lot of ex-employees who abused the system. That's the reason we're in a jam. But we're steadily working on it to stay afloat."
A community of about 125 along Oklahoma 16, Shamrock was labeled a state "speed trap" Feb. 1 for reportedly making 86 percent of its money from traffic fines in the fiscal year ending in June 2004, according to an investigation by the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety. The following fiscal year, that percentage was roughly 66 percent.
Through at least Aug. 31, Shamrock police will be prohibited from enforcing traffic laws on a 3/10-mile stretch of Oklahoma
16 inside the city limits, a part of the highway that DPS had labeled as "special traffic-related enforcement." In the interim, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol is monitoring the road.
The state's action against Shamrock stems from legislation approved in 2004 that allows the department to investigate communities that gain at least 50 percent of their operating revenue from writing tickets on state or U.S. highways. After Attorney General Drew Edmondson confirmed the town was in violation, DPS notified Shamrock in a Jan. 24 letter to then-Police Chief Dusty Smith.
Similar investigations are pending against several Oklahoma towns, including Big Cabin in Craig County, DPS Capt. Stewart Meyer said.
Long said the ban has affected more than just Shamrock's pocketbook.
"They (motorists) blow through our town like it's a freeway," said Long, adding that James Bland, former acting police chief, resigned this week. "When people found out that we can't pull them over for any reason, we're more or less the joke of Oklahoma.
"I'm afraid some kid's going to be crossing the road. . . . If it's one of my kids that gets hurt because we can't maintain the road, or least keep them contained, somebody's going to get into some trouble."
Six excessive traffic enforcement complaints, including one containing 313 signatures, prompted the DPS investigation of Shamrock, records show. The probe reviewed the town's income and traffic fine collection for fiscal years 2004 and 2005.
For the year ending June 30, 2004, a total of $112,306.96 (about 86 percent) of Shamrock's $129,434.15 budget came from traffic fines, documents indicate. At the close of the following fiscal year, $82,693.14 was collected in traffic fines, or 66 percent of the $124,471.35 in total revenue.
Before the ticket-writing embargo can be lifted, the Shamrock Police Department must present to DPS a traffic law enforcement plan of action.
Tom Burns is co-owner of T.J.'s Pub and Barbecue, Shamrock's only business. He said the community's speed-trap reputation has plagued it for years.
"They need a constable over here, but they don't need somebody who can run roughshod like they used to," he said. "People all over the country would say they wouldn't go through Shamrock. They would go plumb around town. It's just been lately that people have started coming back through here."
When compared with the previous year's numbers, Shamrock's sales tax revenues have dropped in four of the past six months, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission. The town's check for June was about $201, roughly four times less than it was for the same month the year before.
Burns said he bought his business in October, investing more than $50,000.
"People are just scared to come through here," he said. "That's all there is to it. . . . I had some hopes about things here until the way it's been here lately."
State Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, has spoken with town leaders about reaching out to developers to find new revenue streams, perhaps in the form of a convenience store along Oklahoma 16. He has advised them to meet with area councils of government and even write utilities to determine whether the community is collecting any applicable franchise fees.
"This will take a large, long-term program," Morgan said. "I'm excited the community leaders have stepped up and said, 'We want to make a difference. Where do we start?' Basically, we're trying to rebuild this community almost from the ground up.
"We just have to get the word out that Shamrock has turned a new page in the chapter of their community, and they want people to come back."