"We intend to continue with our court," Lake Ozark City Administrator Dave Van Dee said. "We have always viewed the court as a source of revenue, but not a source of profit."
A change in Missouri law last year that limits fines for traffic tickets and other municipal ordinance violations is forcing the Village of Four Seasons to take a hard look at the future of its court.
SB 572, signed into law by Gov. Jay Nixon last summer, modifies various provisions regarding municipalities, nuisance abatement ordinances, disincorporation procedures for various cities and municipal courts. It effectively reduced the amount that municipal courts can fine for certain infractions, and reduced the percentage of a municipality's revenue collected from fines.
And as the Village reaches the first half mark of its fiscal year July 1, it's apparent the change in law and a reduction in the number of tickets written by Camden County Sheriff's deputies has affected Municipal Court revenue. According to Village of Four Seasons records, the Municipal Court has collected $4,544.75 in fines Year-to-Date. That compares to $14,316 YTD last year and $14,961 YTD in 2015.
While revenues have plummeted, court expenses have increased slightly from a year ago, leaving the court with a deficit of about $10,000 YTD.
In addition, Camden County Sheriff's Department records for the Horseshoe Bend/Shawnee Bend Zone show traffic ticket numbers are down as well. As of the end of April, the CCSD had issued 20 tickets - compared to 47 for the same period a year ago and 81 for 2015.
Village officials have said repeatedly they don't see the Municipal Court as a profit center, but also note that the Village relies more heavily on fines and permit fees than most communities because it has a smaller retail base than most lake-area communities, thus collecting less sales tax revenue than municipalities with a larger retail base. The Village is primarily composed of residential developments, and attempts to expand its retail base have not been successful.
“We reasonably anticipate that passage of the bill will be far reaching and will cause the closure of many other municipal courts in Missouri in that ours is likely an exemplary model of how courts should be run,” Village Attorney Todd Miller told legislators last year about SB 572.
Miller said the Village court is small and operates with two part-time employees, a part-time prosecutor and a part-time judge and without a statewide-automated link to the courts.
“Our court has never operated as a ‘revenue machine,’” Miller noted.
A bill in the Missouri Senate this year was watched closely by Village and Municipal Court officials in hopes its passage wold negate most of the restrictions imposed by SB 572. SB 520 failed to move through the legislative system this year, but Municipal Court Judge Tom Loraine told the board recently he has hopes that the Missouri Supreme Court can provide some possible fixes, or that next year's legislature might provide some relief from SB 572.
The Missouri Municipal and Associate Circuit Judge's Association is holding its annual Courts Conference May 24-26 at the Lodge of Four Seasons. Loraine hopes the municipal court issues will be discussed, or possibly resolved.
"The bottom line is that even though we didn't crete the problem that the government reacted to, we're certainly subject to what some of the rules are," Judge Loraine told the Village Trustees recently. "I believe the rules will be straightened out over time because there are too many divisions of the municipal court that are very important to what they do that could be negatively affected."
He was referring to SB 572 which was a reaction to municipal problems associated with Ferguson a couple of years ago.
Neither Lake Ozark nor Osage Beach has serious issues with the changes in municipal court laws.
"We intend to continue with our court," Lake Ozark City Administrator Dave Van Dee said. "We have always viewed the court as a source of revenue, but not a source of profit. The limits have impacted the revenues, but in 2016 the total court revenue was only 7.44 percent of our general fund revenues for the year."
Total General Fund revenue (unaudited) was $2,384,403.45 while municipal court total revenue $177,484.45.
Lake Ozark's Municipal Court is not generating a profit, but Van Dee said he would not expect it to do that. It does cover actual court expenses and offsets some of the expenses in the police and dispatch departments as both departments are actively involved in the court process, he explained.
In Osage Beach, City Administrator Jeana Woods said there has not been any discussion about changes with its Municipal Court, but noted the city has made changes in response to the changes in law and operations will proceed as budgeted.
The Village Trustees will continue to monitor the Municipal Court challenges, but are considering one of several options. A year ago, when the legislature was debating SB 572, there was conceren the Village Court might have to close.
Options include continuing to operate the court as is, closing the court, or combining the court with another municipality such as Lake Ozark or Osage Beach.