Monday, February 24, 2003

Cities protest plan to take $5M in fines

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Bellevue Administrator Don Martin says a budget bill passed by the Kentucky House last week "is robbing Peter to pay Paul.''

And what's being "stolen" is the money from local speeding tickets that funds local police forces, salt truck services and playgrounds.

  A proposal before the General Assembly would take "base court revenue" - or local traffic fine money - away from local budgets to help pay for the upkeep of state prisoners. Below is a list of how much each Northern Kentucky city and county stands to lose:
  Base court revenue by city
Covington: $86,622.33
• Newport: $62,468.23
• Erlanger: $42,412.03
• Florence: $56,473
• Bellevue: $25,843.51
• Dayton: $17,097.28
• Edgewood: $4,154
• Elsmere: $19,558.77
• Fort Mitchell: $22,704
• Fort Thomas: $17,384.55
• Fort Wright: $24,276.37
• Ludlow: $11,951
• Southgate: $17,862.28
• Taylor Mill: $11,095
• Alexandria: $14,071.36
• Cold Spring: $8,860.26
• Crescent Springs: $28,192.42
• Dry Ridge: $10,212.33
• Fairview: $4,857
• Highland Heights: $26, 379.33
• Independence: $5,916
• Lakeside Park: $271.83
• Silver Grove: $8,832.67
• Villa Hills: $1,964.99
• Walton: $13,929
• Wilder: $22,447.74
• Latonia Lakes: $5,095.83
• Melbourne: $7,172.13
• Woodlawn: $68.33
•   Base court revenue by county
Boone County: $26,209
• Kenton County: $26,909.52
• Grant County: $38,828.73
It would go to help the cash-strapped state keep felons behind bars. Kentucky's experiment with early release of prisoners to save on housing them met with harsh criticism.

If enacted, the proposal would take $5 million from 300 Kentucky cities and 16 counties, and transfer it to the state corrections system so that county jails could take in more state prisoners.

Over the past few months, Gov. Paul Patton ordered the early release of 900 nonviolent Class D felony offenders. He stopped the practice after some were re-arrested for serious crimes.

The disputed money, called "base court revenue,'' is an annual payment many local governments have received since Kentucky's court system was reorganized in 1976.

If the measure is approved by the Kentucky Senate this week, tiny Melbourne (pop. 457) would take a $7,200 hit, City Clerk Jody Anderson said. The loss of that money, now used to help pay for emergency dispatch services, could delay needed street repairs or resurfacing, she said.

Bellevue, a Campbell County city of 6,480, would lose about $25,800 a year.

"That could be a police car, a public works employee or a new playground,'' Martin said.

City leaders throughout the state say the loss of base court revenue could mean cuts from parks to police officers to salt for winter roads.

"The state can't keep restricting our ability to raise taxes, then turn around and take money away from us,'' said Wilder Administrator Terry Vance. "If the formula needs revamping, at least use some common courtesy, and phase it out over a three- or five-year period. Don't take it away all at once.''

In 1976, Kentucky abolished city police courts in favor of a uniform court system operated by the state. The "base court revenue'' payments, which do not increase for inflation, were to compensate local governments for the loss of revenues from traffic fines.

"This is just one more thing that's being piled on at the local level,'' said Sylvia Lovely, executive director of the Kentucky League of Cities.

Lovely said her group started lobbying intensively after learning of the proposed change about a week ago.

"It was a huge surprise to us,'' Lovely said. "The stakes are high, so we're really putting on the full-court press. People are sending notes and faxes and calling their state legislators.''

Hardest-hit would be small towns that depend on base court revenue to help run their police departments, she said.

The police chief of West Point, a Hardin County town of 1,100, has threatened to lay off two of his city's four police officers, Lovely said.

"We don't think taking this money away from cities is the right thing to do,'' she said.

Not everyone agrees.

"I don't like losing $26,000 (a year), but if you look at the purpose of net court revenue, it's almost like the state's paying us for doing the right thing - creating a uniform court system,'' said Boone County Administrator Jim Parsons. "There's no way (local governments) should get compensated by the state for a court system that the state's running, anyway.

"Even though I don't like giving up revenue, it more fully funds the corrections side, which will, in turn, eventually mean (the state) may not let prisoners out early,'' he said.

Scott Kimmich, Kenton County deputy judge-executive, agreed.

"We're not in favor of any cuts in revenue for local government, but if the decision has been made that that pool of resources is going to be used for the greater good, it's hard to be the only one yelling out, `Don't take our money,' '' Kimmich said.

Newport Finance Director Greg Engelman said officials there have lobbied state legislators to save the money for cities. "I understand the state's in a tough situation, but it's not fair to balance the budget on (the cities') backs,'' he said.

Although the state runs the court system, Engelman said that Newport, like other cities, has costs associated with the court system for which it doesn't get reimbursed.

"A lot of our police officers sit in district court every single day waiting for a case to be called to the docket,'' Engelman said. "Many of those police officers are on overtime. The courts could help us by scheduling the dockets in such a way to minimize overtime for the officers.''

Some Northern Kentucky officials, such as Martin and Covington Mayor Butch Callery, think that state legislators should raise Kentucky's cigarette tax to generate more revenue, rather than take money from cities.

At 3 cents per pack, Kentucky's cigarette tax is the second-lowest in the nation, well below the national average of 62 cents per pack. In the past, attempts to raise the tax have died in the state legislature without a committee hearing.

"It would make more sense to me to raise (Kentucky's) cigarette tax to the national average,'' Martin said. "First of all, it would help balance the state budget (by wiping out a projected $400 million deficit).

"But more importantly, it might discourage a kid from taking up the habit and cutting his life short. That would be a true demonstration of Kentucky leadership.''


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