Pushing the Limits: Towns cash in on traffic fines
By CURTIS KILLMAN World Staff Writer
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Speed trap law restricts revenue
STRINGTOWN -- The oncoming pickup broke away from the traffic and was traveling south on U.S. 69 when Stringtown Patrolman Michael Wilson's radar locked on.
With the "67" still showing on the radar readout, Wilson turned his white Dodge Intrepid around and began to close the gap on the pickup.
After being stopped, the driver told Wilson he was driving to a casino in McAlester.
"This guy here thinks the speed limit is 65," a soft-spoken Wilson said after coming back to his car to look for his ticket book.
Most motorists on U.S. 69 can breeze through Stringtown without ever realizing it. With most of the town of 402 people located across the railroad tracks and downhill from U.S. 69, it's easy to miss.
But state officials have had the area on their radar. In recent weeks the state De partment of Public Safety has paid visits to Stringtown and at least one other town to ensure they are complying with a state law designed to cut down on speed traps.
Stringtown and its neighbor Kiowa, eight miles to the north, have both been the subject of recent DPS investigations, according to local officials.
Stringtown Police Chief Ron Marley
said a DPS investigator was in his town about two weeks ago looking at records.
"We're just out there to slow them down. We're not out there for revenue purposes, contrary to some opinions," Marley said of his department's practices.
But for Stringtown and several other small towns, tickets are big business, bigger in fact than sales tax proceeds, the primary fuel that runs the economies of most municipalities in the state.
A Tulsa World review of financial filings submitted by 73 eastern and southeastern Oklahoma towns with populations of fewer than 2,000 people found 15 towns reported more revenue from fines and forfeitures than they did from sales tax.
The Atoka County town of Caney collected nearly 16 times as much from ticket revenue as it did from local taxes on sales.
Caney officials could not be reached for comment.
Under the law approved in 2003, a city or town police department can lose its ability to write citations if state officials determine its enforcement practices are being conducted on the outskirts of town limits and generate more than 50 percent of the town's operating revenue.
Two towns, Shamrock in Creek County and Big Cabin in Craig County, have been snagged by the law thus far. Shamrock is prohibited from writing tickets on the main highway through town, Oklahoma 16, until it presents DPS with a traffic law enforcement plan of action. Big Cabin hasn't been sanctioned, but DPS continues to review the town's financial records to determine its compliance, said Wellon Poe, DPS chief legal counsel.
Talala Police Chief Phillip Coe said the law unfairly affects small towns with little to no retail businesses.
Coe said if his town had a large retailer, the force could write 10 tickets per shift and not run afoul of the speed trap law.
But as it is, if his officers write just two tickets per daily shift, the city would eclipse the 50 percent of revenue rule that could trigger the speed trap designation, Coe said.
"Basically what that law is, it says your level of enforcement on any highway is going to be dependent on how many businesses you have," Coe said.
Talala, a Rogers County town of 270 people on U.S. 169, collected $98,068 from citations compared to $48,475 from sales tax in fiscal 2005, records filed with the state auditor and inspector's office indicate. Even when all other town revenues are considered, 52 percent of Talala's funding came from fines and forfeitures, records reflect.
Despite the numbers, Coe said he is not concerned the town could be designated as a speed trap by the state.
"I think that we'd be able to legitimately justify our level of enforcement," Coe said.
At least one town has decided to voluntarily change the way it does things to make sure it doesn't run afoul of the law.
Kiowa Police Chief Steve Pebworth said he has made several operational changes since becoming chief in October.
"The highway patrol did come down and talk to us, and I guess I could say investigated us, and we've made a big difference since we have a new administration now," Pebworth said.
The changes include painting police markings on what was an all unmarked vehicle fleet. The city has also deannexed about five miles of its town limits that included U.S. 69, a move aimed at avoiding the portion of the speed trap law that frowns on enforcement on the outskirts of town, Pebworth said.
Kiowa officers are now more tolerant of speeders, he said.
"We're cutting more breaks," Pebworth said. "We're giving 12 miles over the speed limit before we write a ticket, where it was 10 in the past. We cut more breaks; we write more warnings.
"We're focused on slowing the traffic down right in the businesses and we're not out there in the 70-mile-an-hour zone hiding behind a tree or a gravel pile."
Records show Kiowa collected eight times as much from traffic citations as it did from sales tax during fiscal 2005. Fines amounted to $466,031 versus $58,116 from sales tax, or 52 percent of its total revenue.
"The highway patrol said since this is a new administration and I did make changes for a positive, we have nothing to worry about," Pebworth said.
Despite the changes, Pebworth said speeds are a big problem on U.S. 69.
"We have people having accidents right here in the city limits doing 75, 78 miles an hour in a 45-miles-an-hour zone, and we have kids crossing this highway. We've got school buses, people pulling out of the businesses. It's very dangerous," Pebworth said.
Kiowa Assistant Chief Jason Lenamond said while they don't want to be labeled as a speed trap, the department has a responsibility to its citizens to try to slow the traffic.
"Each of our officers are very active and we really are happy for that," Lenamond said. "You put an active officer out here on the road versus someone who is just collecting a check and eating donuts and you're going to see a big difference in revenue between those two."
The town of nearly 700 has a five-member police force and three dogs trained to detect illegal drugs.
"What do we do, we write so many tickets and then just let them speed," Pebworth said. "You're darned if you do and you're darned if you don't.
"The people that are complaining about the speed traps, they are the ones that are getting the tickets," Pebworth said.
Kiowa officers average 70 to 80 drug arrests every three months, Pebworth said.
With each drug arrest netting a fine of at least $500 to $1,000, it doesn't take long for the revenues to add up, Pebworth said.
"I hope that the state of Oklahoma doesn't want us to stop writing (tickets to) dopers," Pebworth said.
In Stringtown, Marley said his seven-officer force has an informal policy of not writing tickets unless the motorist is traveling at least 11 mph over the speed limit.
"I'm going to say if you can find a citation that has been written here for 10 or less, I'll pay it," Marley said.
The chief said a review of tickets written in the past month indicated the average speed of those written in the 45-mph zone was 62 mph. The 45-mph speed limit has been in effect in the construction zone this summer. Otherwise, the lowest speed limit on U.S. 69 within Stringtown is 60 mph.
The average speed for tickets in the past month in the 70-mph zone was 87 mph, Marley said.
Stringtown collected $422,793 from its fines in fiscal 2005, compared to $71,144 in sales tax during the same period.
Asked to describe what would happen if the speed limit was left at 70 through town, Marley replied: "It would be a slaughterhouse."
One Stringtown local echoed that assessment. Business owner Tom Harper said traffic zooms up and down the highway in front of his business, making it difficult to come and go.
"We're lucky to have these guys out there," Harper said of the police. "As far as I'm concerned, we need all the enforcement we can get."
Others are displeased with the speed trap law, but for different reasons. Fred H. Gravett has been railing for years against the traffic enforcement in southeast Oklahoma.
A retired trucker, Gravett said he has driven across the country, through towns big and small. "In my travels, believe you me, I didn't run into anything like we have down here," Gravett said.
Since 1996, the 84-year-old Atoka resident has been gathering ticket data from four towns along U.S. 69 near where he lives. Gravett sends the "speed trap reports" as he calls them, to legislators, the Department of Public Safety and anybody else who wants them.
"Stringtown, Atoka, Tushka and Caney -- 21 miles of speed traps," he said.
The four towns have written a collective 25,000 tickets during that 10-year period, Gravett said.
"To me that's excessive," Gravett said.
While he applauded the passage of the speed trap law, he has been disappointed since then. "It's still so weak that nobody would enforce it," he said.
Poe said the DPS currently has several speed trap investigations pending against cities and towns in the state. He declined to name any municipalities.
And while sales tax may be a big chunk of revenue for many cities, it's not the only source DPS considers when conducting a speed trap investigation.
The state speed trap law requires DPS to consider all operating budget revenues, Poe said.
"It's a difficult law to interpret and apply," Poe said.
For instance, towns that finance their general fund with utility revenues could collect more from traffic fines and not risk violating the 50 percent clause of the law.
In Talala, sewer utility fees netted the town $26,091 in fiscal 2005, well below what other towns with public utilities collect.
"If you look at it from a numbers point of view, what that law is saying is the more businesses you have, the more tickets you can write," Coe said.
Coe ticks off the list of citations that have been issued in the past month in his town. The largest grouping are the 34 that were written for 11 mph to 15 mph over the 45-mph limit.
Four tickets were written for motorists traveling 26 mph to 30 mph over the speed limit. One was for driving 31 mph to 35 mph over the limit.
"As you can tell, they are not driving very slow through town," Coe said. "They are not obeying the speed limit."