‘Stop the shakedown’: Colorado ballot measure would go beyond halting collections of speed trap fines
Author: Marianne Goodland - December 12, 2017 - Updated: January 6, 2018
Mountain View — Nik Loecher likes the police in his small town of 528. “They make us feel safe and protected,” he said, as he leaned over the counter of his family-owned business.
But some, like former Libertarian presidential candidate Steve Kerbel of Colorado Springs, think about the town and its police department differently — that it relies too much on revenue from traffic tickets and fines — and he intends to do something about it through a ballot measure in the 2018 election.
Kerbel’s ballot measure, however, goes far beyond just stopping small towns from collecting fines through speed traps. The ballot measure also would put the skids on fines collected by city, county and state governments.
The town that Loecher lives in doesn’t have a grocery store or gas station. It doesn’t have its own school district nor does it have its own fire department. The town has a pretty little park that sits adjacent to the town hall, where its employees are wrapping up business from a recent town council meeting and preparing for the town’s next court day, which will primarily deal with traffic tickets.
The town covers just 12 city blocks, and its population of 528 in 2016 makes it the third smallest among the incorporated communities in Jefferson County. But this isn’t one of the dozen small mountain towns that dot Jefferson County’s western side.
Mountain View is bordered on its north side by 44th Avenue and on its south side by 42nd Avenue. It’s a rectangle along six blocks that ends on Sheridan Boulevard, the dividing line between Jefferson County and Denver, east of Wheat Ridge and north of Edgewater.
On this particular morning, customers are streaming in and out of businesses on Mountain View’s main street, the south side of 44th Avenue. They’re visiting Loecher’s business, L&L Coin and Stamps, a staple of the community with more than 40 years in the same location. They’re working out in a yoga studio next door to L&L, or checking into one of the town’s newest businesses, one of two marijuana dispensaries.
On this quiet morning, there’s no sign of the speed traps that have made Mountain View and other small towns like it infamous.
Fines go to charity
Those speed traps have led Kerbel to push for the ballot measure to halt what he calls “shakedowns” of citizens for money to pay for town services. It’s not about safety, he told Colorado Politics — it’s about revenue.
Kerbel’s idea is that fines for traffic offenses that are paid to communities like Mountain View instead should go to charity.
But the measure’s impact would be much more far-reaching. It would halt collection of fines in virtually every county and municipality and in state government, for any purpose. That includes fines assessed in criminal, civil or forfeiture situations, as well as fines assessed against individuals and businesses and by any government entity in Colorado that has the authority to levy fines.
Taking those fines away from the governments that collect them could result in the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as impact programs those fines support.
The ballot measure Kerbel has filed doesn’t stop the speed traps or the enforcement of various regulations and laws that result in fines, but he believes it will stop unnecessary enforcement.
In September, Kerbel got the green light to start collecting petition signatures to put his initiative on the ballot for 2018. He has until March to pick up the 98,492 necessary signatures. The measure is statutory, which means petitions do not have to have the new requirements of collecting signatures in Colorado’s 35 senate districts. The measure would need approval from at least 55 percent of voters in 2018.
Kerbel says he has so far collected about 10,000 signatures and is fundraising for a paid canvassing firm. Between that group and volunteers he is confident he can get the rest. Kerbel also said they have done some polling with Magellan Strategies, and once people understand what the measure does they are strongly in favor of it.
While Kerbel’s measure seems like a long shot at best, Colorado voters have been known to go for long shots.
Traffic enforcement in communities like Mountain View “is a huge shakedown,” Kerbel said recently.
“It’s gone crazy and turned on us, for purposes we don’t want.” The current system isn’t cost-efficient, he explained, stating that it would be cheaper for these towns to contract with neighboring cities for police or other city services. Mountain View could contract with Wheat Ridge, Kerbel suggested, for about one-sixth of the current costs.
“The way I look at it, a city that survives off of highway robbery should not be a city,” Kerbel added.
Loecher said he prefers that Mountain View keep its police force, stating that a strong police presence makes him and his neighbors feel safe. He’s had only one incident in the past five years at his store, a break-in that led to a high-speed police chase. The perpetrator was later apprehended on an unrelated matter.
Losers would be governments
The idea of Mountain View being absorbed by its neighbor to the west, Wheat Ridge, or by its neighbor to the east, Denver, isn’t appealing. There wouldn’t be the same level of police enforcement that Mountain View has now, Loecher said.
As to the traffic tickets, Loecher said people who speed should be ticketed, and he’s been ticketed plenty of times himself, although like many, he drives carefully through Mountain View to avoid being cited.
The Colorado Municipal League believes the the issue is one of local control. CML’s Kevin Bommer said that if people are unhappy with the way things are, they can change it through citizen initiative or through their elected officials.
Kerbel dismisses the idea that the traffic enforcement is about safety. “Let’s see what they say about safety if they can’t keep the money,” he said.
Kerbel’s ballot measure declares that governments that receive a financial benefit from enforcement — and that includes municipal regulations, too — creates a mistrust of law enforcement and a conflict of interest. Fines collected should first go to victims of crime, if any. After that, the fines would go to a “legitimate charity,” chosen by the person who pays the fine, according to the measure’s language.
“It saves lives, feeds the hungry, houses the homeless, and it’s tax deductible,” Kerbel said, adding that changing the way fines are used would narrow the chasm between people and law enforcement. “The only losers are the government.”
Town now has marijuana taxes
Back in Mountain View, Loecher said his town is changing, although it still keeps its small-town feel by limiting growth. He notes that younger people are moving in, the town is adding businesses and for the first time in 20 years, a half-dozen new homes have been built.
The addition of the two marijuana dispensaries means tax revenue is starting to make a difference in the town’s finances. But the town still relies on that traffic fine revenue — it’s the single largest source of revenue, according to town budget documents.
The town today relies more on taxes, through non-marijuana retail sales and marijuana sales, to cover its expenses.
According to documents provided through an open records request, between 2013 and 2016 marijuana taxes grew from $62,000 to $275,000, primarily from the addition of the recreational marijuana dispensaries. Add in the retail sales tax, and taxes become the largest source of revenue for the town, estimated at $575,000 for 2016.
At the same time, traffic citation fines have gone in the opposite direction, from a high of just under $433,000 in 2013 to a budgeted estimate for 2016 of $195,000, the last year for which budget documents were available.
Public safety is the single largest expenditure in the town budget, at $551,000 in 2016. Of that, $385,000 goes to pay police officer salaries.
Mountain View isn’t the only town in Jefferson County to come under the radar, so to speak, for its reliance on fines related to traffic citations.
Kerbel points to Morrison as another example of abuse. In July, the police department’s former second in command was reportedly arrested for embezzling $132,000. Kerbel said that 60 percent of Morrison’s town revenue comes from traffic tickets, which he calls theft. A city that survives off of theft will have the same mindset that it’s okay to steal from the people and from the city too, he said. “If people can’t see this as abuse they’re not paying attention.”
According to a 2014 report by Rocky Mountain PBS and 9NEWS in Denver, five Colorado municipalities earned more than 30 percent of revenue from fines, including Mountain View at 53 percent, Morrison at 52 percent, and, topping the list, tiny Campo in far southeast Colorado earned almost its entire budget, 93 percent, from traffic stops. Those are 2013 numbers.
But what of fines levied by other government entities, such as the state? According to a fiscal analysis prepared for the ballot measure, state agencies alone would lose $256 million in revenue from fines in 2018 and another $322 million in 2019.
The Department of Transportation, which is already trying to find billions of dollars to fund overdue road and bridge projects, would lose $9 million in 2018 and $15 million in 2019. The state’s judicial system would be the biggest loser, with $32 million gone in 2018 and $56 million the following year.
And losing those fines could impact state programs intended to help or protect Coloradans. Take for example, the Department of Labor and Employment, which would see its revenues reduced by $14 million in 2018 and $24 million in 2019. According to the department, its fine revenues go to the state’s unemployment insurance fund, the workers’ compensation fund and a small amount to fund oil and gas safety measures that protect industry workers.
Kerbel believes state government is as much in the business of overreach as the small towns. “What they’ve done is turn innocent people into bad people with too much money for enforcement,” he told Colorado Politics.
“If you really do something wrong, that’s why we have enforcement,” Kerbel said. He believes that not everyone in the state is a criminal, yet says the state government treats people that way. No entity in the state is fully funded by fines, he noted. State agencies “will have to take a haircut and that’s good for the people of the state.”
Crime victims would benefit
And then there’s the question of just who gets those fine revenues. Kerbel believes he has put in all the necessary safeguards, such as requiring the nonprofit that gets the money to be registered with the Secretary of State as a 501(c)3. The initiative also prohibits the person being fined to give the money to a charity in which he/she has a direct or indirect financial interest.
Kerbel’s ballot measure does have one other advantage, and that’s for victims of crime. He explained that only about 4 percent of the fines assessed in criminal convictions actually goes to the victim, and much of what a victim receives in restitution is money that comes from matching federal funds. For example, a victim of assault might get about $1,500 but the fines for assaults can run up to $500,000. “I’m making sure every penny goes to the victim, up to the full cost of damages,” he said. “It’s a huge win for victims” and runs contrary to the current system, where the government gets the fines first and the victim gets whatever’s left.
He also believes taking away the fines will be great for business, but there’s a personal side to the story. Last year, Kerbel’s company, Rio National Insurance Services, was slapped with an injunction by the state Commissioner of Securities for a number of violations, including selling unregistered securities and securities fraud. The injunction also carried with it $800,000 in fines, dating back to 2014. The case has since been settled.
“Someone I never met sold bonds to other people I never met, to help a viable business expand,” Kerbel said. “But the one person I never met didn’t renew a license that she shouldn’t have needed,” and that’s what led to the problem. Kerbel said he lost his business as a result.
After the situation with the Division of Securities, Kerbel said he experienced a metamorphosis about the realities of the world and the harsh relationship between people and government that he said needs to be softened.
Kerbel said 23 statutes would be changed by his ballot measure, and acknowledges that the courts and the General Assembly will have to step in to make sure the new fine system works as intended.
“I’ll bet I’m making a massive contribution to benefit society,” he said recently, but added later, “they’ll have to be more careful about who they’re attacking.”