CHICAGO – Ferguson, Mo. and the U.S. Justice Department will soon seek court approval of a consent agreement that outlines municipal court and policing reforms.
The City Council voted late Tuesday to adopt the consent agreement that comes more than a year and a half after the controversial 2014 fatal police shooting that prompted the Justice Department probe.
The vote marked a reversal of the council's position last month when it adopted a water-downed version of the consent agreement, citing concerns that all of the negotiated reforms could bankrupt the now junk-rated city.
The action prompted Justice officials to file a federal lawsuit accusing the city of municipal court and policing practices that violate federal civil right law and the constitutional. That suit will now be dropped.
"The vote avoids the time and cost of litigating the DOJ's claims and allows the city to continue its focus to ensure constitutional policing and court practices, and provides these benefits to the citizens of Ferguson," said a statement from Mayor James Knowles III and the council. The vote was unanimous with one member absent.
"We are pleased that they have approved the consent decree, a document designed to provide the framework needed to institute constitutional policing in Ferguson, and look forward to filing it in court in the coming days and beginning to work with them towards implementation," Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.
The agreement was negotiated after the DOJ launched a patterns and practice probe of the department following the August 2014 shooting to death of a young, unarmed African-American man, Michael Brown, by then police officer Darren Wilson, who is white. In addition to illegal policing practices, the stinging report accused the city of aggressive police tactics to generate court fines aimed at generating more revenue for city coffers.
The city's reversal on the agreement came after a recent letter to city officials from Gupta countered some of the city's cost estimates and said technical assistance and possible some grant funds would be available.
The city had projected the cost of implementing the agreement in just the first year at as much as $3.7 million. It has since revised the figures, lowering the projected cost in the first year to a high of $1.5 million with costs falling under $1 million in subsequent years.
The city is banking on voter approval next month for two tax increases to help erase its red ink and cover the cost of reforms.
"Without passing this tax increase, it will be nearly impossible to meet the terms of that decree," Knowles said in a story published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. They would raise the city's ad valorem taxes and introduce a new economic development sales tax.
Moody's Investors Service is watching closely how the ballot measures fare.
It placed Ferguson's $16.5 million of debt on review earlier this month. The action affected $6.7 million of Ba2-rated 2011 general obligation bonds, $8.4 million of Ba3-rated 2013 certificates of participation, and $1.5 million of B1-rated 2012 COPs.
Moody's said its rating concerns are driven by the uncertainty of the potential financial impact of litigation costs from the lawsuit and the price tag for implementing the proposed DOJ consent decree.
"We believe fiscal ramifications from these items will be significant and could result in insolvency," Moody's analysts said. "Passage of the April ballot initiatives is integral to management's proposed solution to close the existing budget gap. Absent passage of these initiatives, city management has indicated a balanced budget will be achieved with reductions in force."