In 2019, a nonprofit public-interest law firm documented how three Georgia cities relied far too much on fines and fees for revenue, at totals ranging between 14% and 25%.
Law and code enforcement officials in Morrow, Riverdale and Clarkston charged hefty fines for violations that pose little threat to public health and safety. Many residents in those three cities have low incomes, as the Institute for Justice’s report “The Price of Citation by Taxation” noted.
In Clarkston, for example, city officials imposed a $100 fine on someone who placed a temporary storage container in his driveway. That container was not generally visible, nor was it in anybody’s way.
“Such high levels of fines and fees revenue account for the second largest proportion of the cities’ revenues [after property taxes] and may indicate taxation by citation,” IJ said in 2019.
An investigation by the Georgia Public Policy Foundation in 2023, however, revealed Clarkston has changed its laws for the better. Morrow — and possibly Riverdale — has not. With that said, these problems do not plague those three towns alone.
IJ’s original report analyzed the laws in all 50 states and discovered Georgia’s legal environment “ranked as the most hospitable for municipal taxation by citation.”
“Not only do the state’s laws do little to discourage reliance on fines and fees for revenue, but they also provide for the structures and mechanisms that allow such behavior to flourish,” IJ said in 2019.
“For example, Georgia law allows municipalities to operate their own courts and outsource fines and fees collections to private companies. It also permits municipal courts to use driver’s license suspensions to compel payment of fines and fees, a policy likely to have perverse effects.”
A person with a suspended license, IJ went on to say, has a harder time holding down a job.
Here are the findings from the Foundation’s more recent review of each city’s practices:
Between 2012-2016, Clarkston, in DeKalb County, generated 25% of its revenue from fines and fees. In 2017, the city took in almost $1 million from those payments. Clarkston’s average fine was $330 per citation. City officials found property violations most profitable, charging $412 on average, IJ said.
The most recent U.S. Census shows Clarkston has a per capita income of $15,864, a poverty rate of almost 26% and a population of 14,538. In 2010, the city’s population was roughly half that.
IJ said in 2019 that Clarkston was growing, in part, due “to a steady influx of immigrants and refugees from around the world.”
Flash forward four years.
As of 2023, only 3.7% of Clarkston’s revenues comes from municipal court fines and forfeitures, according to information provided by City Finance Director Dan Defnall.
Clarkston City Council member Jamie Carroll said this year that new real estate developments enabled the city to rely more on property taxes. Property values currently make up 46.4% of the city’s revenues.
“That also let us direct the police to tell them we need you to focus more on crimes and less on pulling people over for rolling through a stop sign or doing a non-dangerous traffic offense or citing them for their grass being too high,” Carroll said.
“The other thing we did is we changed the citation code to where on their first citation they [offenders] get a warning and a reasonable chance to fix it. That turned it from a revenue generator to just more of a compliance issue. Because of that we have had to pay the municipal court budget, which used to more than pay for itself through these fines, and fees. Now it is allocated from the city budget.”
Morrow, between 2012-2016, generated 17% of its revenues from fines and fees. In 2017, Morrow took in almost $2 million from those sums. The city’s average fine per citation was $312. Morrow charged, on average, $673 per conduct violation.
The city, which is south of Atlanta in Clayton County, has a population of 6,553, according to the most recent U.S. Census. Morrow residents have a per capita income of $19,939. Exactly 14.3% of the city’s residents live at or below the poverty line.
IJ in 2019 called Morrow’s police force “one of the most aggressive traffic enforcers in the Atlanta metropolitan area.”
In 2023, Mayor John Lampl and three of the city’s council members did not return repeated requests seeking comment. The one council member who did respond, Van T. Tran, said only a few of her constituents complain about fines and fees.
Morrow City Manager Jeff Baker, via text, said that in 2023 nearly 13% of the city’s general fund comes from municipal court fines.
A 2019 article from Governing.com said governments shouldn’t obtain more than 10% of their general funds from fines and court revenues. Any local governments that do so take in a “relatively high” amount. Baker said the city’s general fund gets nearly 20% of its revenues from local option sales taxes, 18% from property taxes and 10% from business and occupancy permits.
“The remaining 36.6% are from combined smaller revenue sources such as MV [motor vehicle] taxes, excise taxes, permits, etc. none of which are individually over 5% of general fund revenue,” Baker said.
Riverdale, a suburb south of Atlanta in Clayton County, has a population of 14,912, per the most recent U.S. Census. The city has a per capita income of $25,673. Exactly 13.2% of its residents live in poverty.
In 2019, Riverdale government generated 14% of its revenues from fines and fees. Like nearby Morrow, the city took in almost $2 million in fines in 2017. Riverdale charged an average of $223 per citation, $353 for property violations and $411 from conduct violations.
According to IJ’s report, one Riverdale resident had to wait nearly two months to appear in court to challenge his traffic ticket for following too closely. The man said “the process to contest was unclear and not explained.” The judge, meanwhile, “was dead set” on forcing him to pay a fine.
What, if anything about the city’s finances, has changed?
Unfortunately, in 2023, a month’s worth of attempts to gather that information was unsuccessful.
Riverdale officials posed, by far, the biggest obstacles to obtaining information that is supposed to be a matter of public record.
Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon did not return repeated requests for comment about the city’s finances. Neither did three of the city’s four council members.
The fourth city council member, Frank Cobbs Jr., directed all inquiries to City Manager Scott Wood. When contacted, Wood said Finance Director Donald Turner would answer all questions.
Turner, however, declined to say what percentage of the city’s revenues come from fines and fees. He said in an email that the only way to obtain that information was to file an open records request with City Clerk Sylvia Vaughan.
A voicemail requesting a callback was left with Vaughan’s office on April 19. A few minutes later, an email was sent to Vaughan’s official city email account. That email contained an open records request.
The open records request asked how much money the city generated from fines and fees the past fiscal year and sought a list of the city’s revenue sources, including by what percentage.
Nearly one month later, Vaughan still had not acknowledged receiving the open records request. When contacted on May 15, Vaughan said she had not seen the email. But after a quick search of her inbox, she said she found the request and would comply with it. Vaughan did not say when she would make the material available.
PATTERNS AND TRENDS
As IJ reported in 2019, the three cities’ fines and fees revenues peaked in 2012 before they began to decline as tax revenues increased.
“These trends generally correspond to the recession of the late 2000s and early 2010s and the subsequent recovery,” IJ said.
“This suggests the cities — which are poorer than average, face uncertain economic futures and have few means of generating substantial revenues — may have seen fines and fees as a way out of a budget crunch.”
Could Clarkston revert to its old habits?
City Council member Jamie Carroll says it’s possible — but unlikely.
“What we had before was unpopular but a necessity because the city didn’t have the tax base to otherwise support it,” Carroll said.
“The real debate [in Clarkston] is just about how much more growth will allow and whether we allow more housing refugees from coming. I don’t think anybody wants to go back to the more fines and fees if we can afford it.”