CHICAGO - Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich last week announced guidelines for his planned audit of 10 municipal court systems, including Ferguson's, amid growing public and legislative concerns over abuses.
The audits, which will be expanded to include 10 more next year and then five additional ones annually, will review the systems for compliance with accounting practices, racial and gender statistics on warrants, and adherence to the so-called Mack's Creek Law, which caps traffic ticket income at 30% of a municipality's general operating revenue. The city must send any excess income to the state.
The guidelines announced Wednesday include details on how the office will weigh the percentage of a city's general operating revenue to arrive at how much comes from ticket fines. The audits are expected to be completed between mid and late 2015. The first 10 include four in St. Louis County, including Ferguson.
General operating revenue will include general sales tax, general use tax, general property tax, and fees from certain licenses and permits, interest, fines and penalties. "General operating revenue" does not include, among other items, designated sales or use taxes, user fees, grant funds or other revenue designated by law, ordinance, or constitution, for a specific purpose, the guidelines read.
Court related fines have come under scrutiny in the state since the shooting to death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson police officer earlier this year. The shooting has raised concerns that Ferguson and other municipalities rely too heavily on court fines to prop up their budgets, resulting in aggressive policing tactics that disproportionally target of low-income residents.
State Sen. Eric Schmitt plans to introduce a bill when the Legislature convenes next year that would whittle down the amount municipalities can keep.
Seven St. Louis County local governments, including Ferguson, face litigation challenging their municipal court fees.
The lawsuits were filed recently by lawyers from St. Louis University, ArchCity Defenders and the Campbell Law LLC firm in St. Louis County Circuit Court against Beverly Hills, Ferguson, Fenton, Jennings, Pine Lawn, Wellston, and Velda City.
The complaints question the legality of various court fines under state law and seek compensation for defendants if found excessive or illegal. A recent report looked at court fees collected by St. Louis County municipalities concluding that some municipalities proposed budgeted increases in revenue from fines and fees. Court-related fines generated more than $2 million for Ferguson in 2013, making them the second biggest revenue producer for the city behind sales tax receipts.