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In tough economic times, local governments' budgets get strained - taxpayers are unwilling to bear increased burdens and so it is tempting for local policy makers to look for new sources of funding.
Some look to law enforcement as a revenue generator.
Texans have long despised speed traps and other attempts to use the power of the justice system to pay for basic governmental services.
Here in Collin County, many still remember the Texas Rangers swooping down on tiny Lavon, which at one point had 13 police officers writing tickets as fast as they could. In response, the Texas Legislature prohibited small towns under 5,000 population from using fines for more than 30% of their budget.
Yet even so, abuses abound.
Red light cameras and speed cameras are frequently seen as profit centers.
Recently, the Dallas Morning News revealed that over 50% of Dallas County's budget was gained from fines and fees. There are reports from East Texas of a county where half the DA's budget comes from seized and confiscated assets, even though most of those who's assets are seized aren't charged or convicted.
Collin County says it is not like Dallas. According to the 2009 budget, Collin County gets less than 2% of its General Fund revenue from fines.
The 2009 budget notes that the General Fund gets about 13% of its revenue from user fees. Other funds, such as the much smaller Public Works Fund received over $13 million from fees. The General Fund accounts for approximately $150 million of the county's $250 million dollar budget.
There are hundreds of fees the county charges citizens and businesses. In fact Collin County's Schedule of Fees is well over 200 pages long.
But while this county does not have a history of using law enforcement as a tool to gain revenue, it is still troubling that in the documentation for redistricting the Justice of the Peace Precincts, the county prepared profit/loss statistics for each JP court.
|Precinct||2000 Pop.||2009 Pop.||Cases||Warrants||Truancy||Profit|
|Precinct 1||69,698 (14.2%)||123,412 (15.5%)||14,231 (27,4%)||2,742 (17.4%)||926 (19.4%)||$468,948|
|Precinct 2||32,554 (6.6%)||54,809 (6.9%)||4,168 (8%)||1,199 (7.6%)||589 (12.4%)||($99,646)|
|Precinct 3-1 & 3-2||157,011 (31.9%)||323,931 (40.6%)||14,039 (27.0%)||4,132 (26.2%)||3,248 (68.2%)||($209,875)|
|Precinct 4||232,412 (47.3%)||296,053 (37.1%)||19,573 (37.65)||7,701 (48.8%)||0 (0%)||$469,724|
One chart, titled "Justice of the Peace Net Revenue 2007-2008", shows the lions share of the revenue coming from Precinct 1 in 2007 and Precinct 4 in 2008. In 2008 the JP courts sent over $3 million to the county's coffers. Just over $2 million of that was from these 2 courts.
As far as bringing in a "net gain" (profit), once again it was Precincts 1 and 4 that turned a profit for the county.
The reasons for Precinct 4 numbers are obvious when you factor in the revenue and warrants for "failure to pay toll" to the NTTA. Out of the 35,000 warrants issued by all 5 JP courts in 2007, Precinct 4 was responsible for over 24,000 of them.
Precinct 1's profit was, in part, caused by the fact that it is the only court that doesn't pay rent (it meets in a county building).
Precinct 3 doesn't show a profit in part because it handles a huge number of unprofitable truancy cases. Precinct 2 serves just too few people to cover its costs.
The commissioners court will consider 7 alternate redistricting plans. A few will cause elected Justices to live outside their distrcts. Unfortunately, none of the plans indicate population data.
Nevertheless, the question remains, is "profit" an appropriate measure of a JP Court's performance, or for that matter, of any court?
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