Sunday, May 9, 2004

Bill gives ticket
revenues to city

An administrative tickets proposal
for Oahu is already in use in
Minnesota for traffic laws

If your car is parked illegally at an expired meter in Columbia Heights, Minn., you will likely find what looks like a ticket on your windshield.

City & County of Honolulu But it's not quite the same. Columbia Heights and other Minnesota cities are using what's called administrative tickets -- with civil penalties -- to enforce traffic laws.

And if the City Council has its way, Honolulu could be next.

Proponents in Minnesota say motorists get a break because the fines are less than those tied to tickets issued by the state. They also say a violation doesn't get on the driver's record, which means insurance rates won't be affected.

But a big difference is that all revenue from the tickets goes to the city. In Minnesota, the state traditionally controls the revenue from traffic fines.

"We're using them for our ordinance violations, parking violations and junk vehicles," said Columbia Heights Police Chief Tom Johnson. "I think for the most part, people in our community really appreciated it."

The state of Minnesota is lodging the loudest complaint, saying cities that use them don't have the authority to do it. The insurance industry is also not happy that the administrative violations don't make it on driver abstracts so there's no record of bad driving habits, officials say.

Similar questions hang over a bill that the Honolulu City Council will take up Wednesday. It would establish an administrative traffic ticket program on Oahu.

The Harris administration, which has lobbied the Hawaii Legislature year after year for the traffic fines revenue, and the police union support the bill. A union representative told a City Council committee that rank-and-file officers think it's not fair that the state keeps all the traffic fine revenues.

Another tool for police

Columbia Heights, a suburb of Minneapolis with a population of about 18,500 and a police department of 22 officers, like other small towns, has latched on to administrative traffic citations especially after the Minnesota Legislature last year increased the surcharge on traffic tickets to $60 from $35 -- seen by some in rural areas as a hardship -- while lawmakers were trying to balance the budget.

A speeding ticket with a $40 fine, for example, could actually cost the driver $100 because of the state surcharges. And most of the money goes to state.

The state was also cutting back on aid to cities.

So Johnson and the city attorney wrote the law and went to their City Council with a list of over four dozen violations -- both traffic and nontraffic offenses -- and suggested civil fines.

The fines for offenses are a few dollars less than what's in state statutes.

"Basically what we were trying to do was to get the corrected behavior but not to ding the person as hard financially," Johnson said.

He said that the idea was well-received by the community. "I think our citizens appreciate it and I think the proof there is by the percentage that were paying the fines," Johnson said, estimating that figure at 80 percent.

Johnson estimates that the administrative tickets bring in $24,000 a year to his city.

Once a citation is issued to an illegally parked car, for example, the motorist can either pay it or contest it.

If the ticket isn't challenged, the fine is paid directly to the city. If a motorist fights the ticket or doesn't pay it within 30 days, the administrative ticket is voided and a traditional citation -- which goes through the courts -- is sent to the motorist. "Then they would be able to go before a judge and get their due process," Johnson said.

Legal cloud?

In December, Columbia Heights stopped issuing administrative citations for moving violations after the state auditor and attorney general gave opinions that cities didn't have the authority to issue citations for traffic offenses because that was a function of the state government.

"Until the Legislature gives cities and counties that authority, cities and counties cannot replace the court system with their own local penalty bureaus, or use police officers as uniformed revenue collectors," Minnesota state auditor Patricia Awada said in a statement.

Minnesota's Attorney General's Office has also said that the Legislature has pre-empted cities from using the administrative penalties to enforce traffic laws.

But many Minnesota cities continued with their administrative fines programs.

Minneapolis police said they are not using administrative tickets for traffic offenses because of the legal cloud over whether cities have the authority to issue administrative tickets for traffic offenses.

Millions at stake

Sponsor Charles Djou said his bill, which would become effective next year if approved, is intended to push the issue with the state Legislature over giving the counties some of the revenues from traffic fines.

Officials estimate that what's at stake could be between $4 million and $11 million a year in revenues.

Lawmakers are concerned about the bill's financial impact on the state budget and the operations of the Traffic Violations Bureau, although the exact impact isn't yet known.

City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi and others are also concerned about a preliminary sign by city attorneys that -- like Minnesota -- the city may not have the authority to do this.

But Djou, an attorney, disagrees with that legal interpretation. "The law isn't clear," he said. "I don't think an opinion should stop us from moving forward with this legislation."

His bill makes traffic tickets $10 less than offenses in the state traffic code. Djou said besides the cheaper tickets, the impact on the average driver will be minimal.

The counties at one time ran the district courts, which includes the Traffic Violations Bureau, and they also received the revenue from traffic tickets fines.

But in 1965, the Legislature transferred the responsibility of several functions to the state from the counties, including the responsibility of the district courts. But along with that transfer of responsibility went the traffic fine revenue.

The switch came about because then Gov. John Burns wanted to end the formula for excise tax revenue sharing between the state and counties and instead wanted the counties to rely more on property taxes for revenue.

But the city didn't want to give up the tax revenue unless the state would assume some services for which the counties were responsible at the time. So the state took over areas where responsibility had either been divided or was overlapping, such as school construction and maintenance, the hospitals and the courts.


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